Thursday, April 21, 2022

Art Lessons: Part 3

 “Let me listen to me and not to them” is the first line of Stanza VII of Gertrude Stein’s 1932 work, Stanzas in Meditation. John Ashbery in July, 1957 issue of Poetry Magazine wrote: “But it is usually not events which interest Miss Stein, rather it is their ‘way of happening,’ and the story of Stanzas in Meditation is a general, all-purpose model which each reader can adapt to fit his own set of particulars.” I thank Gertrude Stein for writing such a perfect line that fits my own set of particulars so well.

Looking back, I don’t think I had an auspicious start as an independent-thinking artist. In my memory, I am lying on the floor with my crayons and favorite coloring book of garden flowers—roses and lilies, peonies and columbines. I am soothed by the sound of the crayons moving across the paper, challenged by keeping a smooth texture while staying within the lines, and content with the knowledge that a beautiful representation of the flowers I love in my grandfather’s garden awaits me at the end. I never thought that it would be better or more rewarding to draw or paint my own versions.

That same child did have another side. I would never call myself feisty but I did have a deep vein of stubbornness and determination. My mother and I had fierce fights over my clothing and hair in the ‘60s when jeans and work shirts replaced sweater sets and pearls and rollers no longer put waves and curls in my hair.

When I immersed myself in calligraphy in my late twenties, I had no formal training in art and design. I learned calligraphy first from books and then in workshops. For years, and to some extent still, my first impulse was always to color within the lines, to stay loyal to what I started with, to accept the authority of the author of the book or the leader of the workshop. I came to see that it is not about rules but principles. Rules get under our skin and ask to be broken. Principles ask to be understood.

As I became more comfortable with the technical and design aspects of calligraphy, I began to ask myself the deeper question: what do I want to say? As a calligrapher who used the words of others, I was what my mentor Jenny Hunter Groat described as an interpretive artist. Her example was the ballerina Margot Fonteyn. I realized that I would rather be the modern dance creator Martha Graham, Jenny’s example of an originating artist. 

I created the first work I consider truly my own in 1986. The previous year had been a tumultuous one. My mother died unexpectedly in January and my first child, my son, was born in June. Out of this came Childbirth Journey, a series of fifteen pieces with abstract pastel drawings and excerpts from my journal. After exhibiting it, I felt that the wall was not the appropriate place for sharing these intimate thoughts and turned to the more private space of the handmade book. 

While my first books used my own texts in calligraphy and type, I soon found myself moving away from words and narrative sequence. I created images on the photocopier and made simple accordion books that used repetition as a primary element. Insecure in the strength of the imagery, I wrote texts on the back of the pages to explain what I thought the books were about. When a poet friend came to visit, I showed her one of the books. She said that there were so many things to see in it that she could look at it for a long time. As soon as she left, I covered the words. I realized that explanation is not art and any poetry in the piece was not in the words but in the object itself.

Every time I moved out of the self-imposed lines I was honoring, it took bursts of both determination and desperation. Every transition grew out of months of struggle filled with tears. Each time I needed to stop making rules for myself and dig down to the next layer of making art—to take what I knew and step into the unknown. Our work is what leads us in new directions. We need to let it be our guide and have the belief and the confidence to follow it. It is listening to us, which happens as we work, that allows us to make art that is truly our own.

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