“Art is the truest kind of freedom”

imageI invite my artist friends to apply these thoughts on poetry to fine art:

Now, there are as many definitions of poetry as there are writers and critics who wish to establish their turf. Some definitions are particular and restrictive, while others are deliberately general so as to include as many kinds of poetry as possible.

Many people believe that a poem must rhyme—absolutely. Many also feel that it must establish a rhythmic pattern—called “meter.” Others will settle for some form of counting from line to line—usually of syllables. These and others argue that poetry must appear in lines, never in paragraphs. To some, the defining characteristic of poetry is compressed language. To others, it is imagery or figures of speech. To still others, poetry depends on a special quality of vocabulary or syntax. There are some to whom no poem is poetic without an elevated tone of voice. To others, good poems must speak partly by implication: they argue that such indirection creates the alert reading we associate with poetry. Some say that poetry depends on what is left out, and that the “poetry” occurs in the reader as much as in the writer. However they define poetry, readers agree that good poems cannot be easily or quickly summed up in prose. They agree that how a thing is said affects what is said.

But the definitions continue to come and go. Some say that poetry has an intimate quality: its tone of voice is personal. Others insist, “I know it when I see it.” Finally, there is a kind of “behavioral” definition: if the publisher says it’s poetry, it’s poetry.

Among such a crowd of definitions, “heightened prose” may seem banal. But it touches the heart of the verbal condition, in which the language of poetry and the language of prose overlap. The border between prose and poetry remains invisible, and moreover it is constantly shifting according to the latest poetic experiments. It has proven impossible to fix the boundary for very long. Artists being artists, rules about art are made to be broken. In that sense, art is the truest kind of freedom.

Bell, Marvin. “Henry Reed’s ‘Naming of Parts.'” In Touchstones: American Poets On a Favorite Poem, edited by Robert Pack and Jay Parini. Hanover, NH: New Hampshire University Press of New England, 1996. 20-25.

“Memory is all we have…”

“Memory is all we have. The present is a knife’s edge and the future doesn’t really exist.” I came these words spoken by the superb writer Gene Wolfe in an interview, and they resonated with words of wisdom I have heard from my mentor Steven Assael. Steven explains that memories are what we paint, even when working from a live model. We look, see, and put our recollected vision down before our eyes, and we check our work from that past moment against a new sight of the model in a later one.

Wolfe, pictured left, was interviewed by Larry McCaffrey for Science Fiction Studies, which you can find at http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/interviews/Wolfe46interview.htm.

His further insights into human nature and our understanding of human experience are worth reading. I particularly liked his description of learning to become a writer, and revisiting a much-rejected story after becoming successful. He realized the story on paper was not the story he had in his head: “What I learned to do in those apprentice years was make the stories run down my arm.”

I identify with that insight, as I am in the process of making pictures run down from my head into my arm. Here, from a palette’s knife edge, is a study I made Thursday with the models Scott Houston and Annie Jefferson for the series dealing with the modern myth of well-being, health care. I name the folders for every study in my iPad photo library so I can find them. What came to me for this study as I thought about the trust we put in health care professionals were the lines from the Navy hymn, “Eternal Father”: “Strong to save.” The words date from childhood memory and making a picture gives me something more to have.

“One always fails to speak of the things one loves”

At his death, the French literary critic and writer Roland Barthes, pictured right, left a manuscript whose title I borrowed for this post. It takes a lot of effort to discern what it is one loves, and that is part of the discovery process in becoming an artist. I paint to make that love clear to myself. As the study with Annie and Mona has developed, I reach back into memories of childhood in Newport. My youthful love of country has become complicated by my mature understanding of its imperfections. But I love it all the same. I paint what I would not want to fail to speak.

We don’t get to choose what to paint


The object of painting is to represent concretely our most subtle emotions.

A masterful painting is one that gets just the response that you want it to get.

We don’t get to choose what to paint, you know. It just comes into your mind and then you just have to do it.

Nature is an awareness of the perfection of our minds. When we see beauty, it is with the awareness of the perfection in our minds. So that–that is really the miracle of existence, that we are able to recognize perfection in beauty.

Beauty and perfection are the same. They never occur without happiness.

Advice for artists? What I’m anxious for everyone to do is to recognize their mind telling them to do things, recognize inspiration, and not be influenced by anybody. And not to look for help or look for expert opinion or not to be like anyone else.

I found these quotes in the Oral History interview with Agnes Martin at the Archives of American Art. Years ago I made a visit to the AAA, near where the former post office was being transformed into the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Once inside the AAA, I was too shy to do more than look. Who was I, a lowly artist? I am so happy their interviews are available online without asking for permission.

Christmas week I started a new study without anyone’s expert opinion, either, and I am even happier about that. Agnes Martin’s biography waits for me on Kindle.

How did we get here?


“Without ancestor-worship, meaning is in short supply — “meaning” here meaning agreed-upon and instituted forms of value and understanding, implicit orders, stories and images in which a culture crystallizes its sense of the struggle with the realm of necessity and the reality of pain and death.”

T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), 1999, p. 7.

Mr. Clark may be answering a question I raised in the paper I presented at The Representational Art Conference in November: can artists create new myths? Or do they respond to the culture around them? It seems there are few agreed upon systems of belief today. I look forward to further reading in this massive book of essays to explore whether modernity is the cause–or the reflection of this state of affairs.

Let ourselves be shaped

From a wonderful essay by Dr. Jerry Gill, a professor describing what he learned as he began to study sculpture:

‘It is essential to listen to the materials, to come to know their basic characteristics and limitations and, to borrow a phrase from Heidegger, “to allow Being to speak through them.” Usually we are so addicted to using materials for our own ends that this is an extremely difficult lesson to learn.’

We are the materials in each others’ lives. Let us learn to let Being speak and to let ourselves be shaped by the experience.

Below, study for “Ring Them Bells.”