A longing to make Art
The artist who painted this works exclusively in images. In her fifty-year career, representative images make up a tiny portion of her work. She is an abstract artist.
This is one of the few works where she uses words. The others were in a series of religious works that she did mainly in the 1970’s, when she was attached as an oblate and teacher to a Benedictine monastery. The most memorable was a five-foot long woodcut meant to illustrate a piece of scripture. The letters were cut deep and tight, like strokes hammered into Roman stellae, but the primitive energy of her lines evoked the fertile mysteries of natural forces more than the neutered purposefulness of a modern church.
Words are abstract paint.
The statement is ambiguous. It can be interpreted as a strong declaration: “Words are abstract. Paint.” Or it can be interpreted as a metaphor, connecting the idea of words to paint. Both words and paints can be used in skillful hands to create images that tell stories, convey meaning and bestow understanding, she might be saying.
The painting has special meaning for me. I know for certainty that it is a work of Art. That certainty opens a broader question, prompted by the introduction of the painted words onto the abstract image, that plagues me.
Why do I long to make Art? Why does the longing linger with me even when I’ve tried to skirt it, as if I were avoiding the homeless woman on the corner, willing to obscure her humanness because of her inconvenient disarray and unpredictable utterances?
The essence of a work of Art is its ability to suspend the discontinuity of being — the combination of our heart, mind and soul — and to transport us to a moment of complete integration with experience. When this integrated state is achieved, we experience intensely…feelings of understanding, clear-sightedness, deep pain, euphoria, vision. Our being is elevated. We are not actually in the circumstance that make this sensation come on, but we can experience it wholly
The true artist sees into the warp and woof of the fabric of time, suspends the labor and shows us the magical product of our work of living, the deep and true nature of being alive.
The irony, of course, is that the artist has to painstakingly apply his craft to create this sensation. The artist has to bear the implications of the hard work (and it is very hard work) bit by bit to make this thing. Sometimes it is not very good. Most of the time, the sensation that the artist experienced and seeks to share was fleeting, and the work to compose it was mundane, so that the essence of the sensation was missed and the work lies flat. It does not compel. It does not transport. It is skillful, because the artist understands how to work with the paint, or the words, or the sound. But in the end, that work lacks soul.
Soul is what elevates the experience.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
A mile down from my house the road curves, the tree cover breaks and the ground falls sharply off to a small hollow. A house and barn sit in the green expanse in miniature scale, below a ridge of pines and oaks that frame the low and wide sky.
As I took the curve this morning, I glanced over the hollow. For an instant, I experienced the unalloyed sense of the sky. My faculties raced to catch up: my eyes refocused to the new perspective, my other senses engaged; my pulse rose; and my conscious explored divergent trains of thought, looking for words to describe the sky, assessing the likely weather that day, building a visual imprint so I could recall the image.
For one moment that in its instance felt timeless I experienced the beauty of the sky, sensed a transformation within my self that was different than the very moment that I was in, that momentarily ordered those sensations inside me that are in a constant state of disorder. For a very very fleeting moment, I was transformed.
What did the sky look like?
The word painting can be like a photograph. The low sky was covered with a blanket of silver-gray clouds that had been sliced into tiny half moons with a scallop knife. The curves were symmetrical, each deepened by a shadow of smokey gray that leaked out into the clouds around it. In the foreground, the sky was a clear blue, almost white at the edges in the early morning haze. The sky seemed alive, as if it were wrapping the clouds back into a blue pillowcase.
The words don’t begin to capture the sensation I experienced. They set the stage. To transfer that sensation to you, or to anyone experiencing the thing, I would have to add context, dimension, create a bridge using the words of to try to present an opening to a moment that is evanescent, transitory and, to my mind, sublime.
That is what a work of art does. It takes the sensation, it presents a context through the application of a craft and it attempts — attempts is the key word here — to provide the opportunity for transformation.
When I try to describe this longing to make Art, that’s where I get inarticulate. I want to capture a feeling and make it continue, transfer it, open a window on it. I want to be a method of transport, to share something that I discovered, something that is almost too amazing to express. It’s the moment of things, the story of things, the song of things, the picture of things.
I know the times that I’ve experienced it in another’s work. These are distinctive moments, free of all self-consciousness and artifice, outside of the sphere of analysis and explication. After the moment I’ve marveled at the artistry, the application of craft, and tried to understand how the sensation that I experienced was achieved, but in the moment I was separated from the tyranny of self-awareness.
These are some of the things that have given me that feeling:
- The paintings of Bruegel;
- The sculptures of Serra;
- “The Good Soldier” by Ford Maddox Ford;
- A live concert by The World Saxophone Quartet and the percussion ensemble mBoom at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine;
- Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man“;
- Tony Kushner‘s “Angels in America“;
- David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia“;
- A short story by Bonnie Tyler about a mother taking her retarded daughter to an institution.
When I long to make Art, I’m not hoping to make something beautiful or serene. I want to make something that transports me into another place, the yin and the yang of existence, beauty and horror spooned together front to back like long-time lovers, inseparable, incomplete without the other.
The artist who made the painting at the beginning of this essay is my mother. She is indefatigable with her work, from when I was a small child to today, when I am a man in the middle of his life and she is an older woman defying the obstacles of her age.
When I was a young man, struggling to get started in life and frustrated by my writing, she said to me: You aren’t an artist.
That was a sentencing by the highest court.
What I know now, many years later, is that whether or not I am an artist, I long to share the remarkable beauty of life, to recreate those moments of unrestrained transport. I long to make Art.