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Residency Report

Post #1551 • May 2, 2012, 4:21 PM • 9 Comments

I would like to be able to report that my residency at the Morris Graves Foundation followed the typical happy narrative: the setting was beautiful, I made lots of work, I had breakthroughs and insights and learning experiences. In a way, that's precisely what happened. But like Yoda told Luke right before he failed the test of the tree on Dagobah, what's there is only what you take with you. I spoke to no one for the whole two weeks, excepting the caretakers of the residency, whom I saw twice a day. I came out with the following realizations:

1. The artistic problem that I've been concerned with for the last six years isn't worth solving.

The discovery that I made in Taiwan in late 2005, a personal take on Asian brush drawing that resulted in some decent pieces, barely translates into color on paper and fails as opaque painting. Maybe "fails" is too strong, but it's not the stuff of masterpieces and never will be, at least coming out of my hand. As illustration it's not bad. It doesn't fly as art. While I stand by those 2005 drawings as drawings, I saw something in them that was less fruitful than it really was.

It's good, in a way, to be realizing this now as opposed to ten or twenty years from now. But at the moment of realization, meh.

2. Instead, I may be some kind of realist.

After painting eighteen pieces in the aforementioned mode, I looked over at the still life I had set up and thought, I am going to get my crow quill and draw the shit out of that flower.

[Image: Camellia in Inkwell, April 21, 2012, brown ink on paper, 5 x 5 inches]

Camellia in Inkwell, April 21, 2012, brown ink on paper, 5 x 5 inches

I hung it up next to the others on the wall. Painful as it was to admit it, it was much better than any of them. Hence realization #1.

This is bad news. I'm happy working like this, but this style, and the oil painting style it implies, are so labor-intensive as to all but preclude my doing anything else. Writing, for one. Comics. Maybe sleeping, if I want to get a body of work together anytime soon. I'm going to have to turn into a time-management ninja.

It's good, in a way, to have an artistic prompt to use my time better. But at the moment of realization, meh.

3. I'm a clinical introvert.

I've suspected this for some time. I've known that I'm a pretty typical case, in that I can comfortably manage and even enjoy conservations and large gatherings as long as I can "recharge" by myself later. It disturbed me, though, how little I was craving conversation after two weeks of no contact with the outside world. Mostly, I wanted to get back on the Internet.

4. Nevertheless, I need to get out more.

Into nature, anyway. The residency was covered with great hiking trails, and the studio overlooks a lake a quarter-mile across with its own microclimate. On one day, I saw a bald eagle, a varied thrush, a Stellar's jay, several red-winged blackbirds, two Belted kingfishers in a fight, and a Rufous hummingbird. Those Rufouses are amazing—a ruby patch on their throats, when full sun hits it, shines red like a bicycle reflector. They'll fly around you faster than you can turn your head to glimpse them. You know they're there by their beating wings, which sounds (with apologies for a second Star Wars reference) like a light saber being swung.

Different stuff, but stuff just as good, lies within a three-hour drive of Boston and it's ridiculous not to be getting into it on a regular basis.

Also, I saw a couple of deer. One of them stomped and snorted at me from an elevated position. I went from admiring the deer to talking smack to the deer. It was all just posturing, though. On my part, not the deer's. That deer would have knocked me into a ravine without the least trouble.

5. I'm political.

This is bad news. Don't become political if you have any choice about it. Politics is a giant waste of time and an infinite wellspring of bad feelings. Political people, regardless of affiliation, feel almost constantly that the world is going to hell. What's worse is that I'm pretty solidly libertarian, thus straining relationships with my artist friends and fellow Massachusettsers who are liberals nearly to a one.

I'll probably be writing about politics more often on this blog in the coming months.

6. I'm an atheist.

Most mornings at the residency started with my setting up a meditation cushion next to the wood stove and sitting for a while. As a result of this, I had an anti-mystical experience. Everything was revealed to me as an accident of biology. There is no meaning to life except that which we attribute to it. There is no almighty, guiding intelligence in the universe. There is just us, with our limited consciousness and febrile imaginations about what might be going on behind the existential scenes. When you die you become food for something else.

I felt closer to unlocking the secrets of the universe by working through 200 pages of a precalculus textbook that I had brought with me so I'd have something left-brained to do.

This is probably not what Morris Graves had in mind for visitors to his residency. Oh well.

7. I am not Morris Graves.

Most artists have heroes, or at least guiding lights, to whom they're drawn in some way. Usually it's through the work itself. Sometimes it's through biography. Rarely, such as in this case, it's the opportunity to spend time in the artist's environs. One hopes of getting a piece of whatever made the artist special. Undeniably, the artist's presence is preserved in the landscaping and interior design choices, which are not inconsequential. One might further be inclined to believe that the artist's spirit still hangs over the premises.

If you're lucky, you will be deprived of this and uncover aspects of yourself instead, which are ultimately more true and useful to you. This brings me to my last item:

8. Disappointment, seen rightly, is revelation.

But in the moment of realization, meh.



John Link

May 2, 2012, 10:10 PM

I admire the way you are grappling with the god thing. Whatever is or is not behind all that exists is quite unlikely to have much to do with the containers most religions label as "god". Atheism is a palpable alternative to what they "offer". It says the other side is a blank, when viewed from this side. If there is a god, he, she, or it is neither almighty, guiding, nor intelligent. These are ideas developed to describe human beings. But being food for something else is not the sole alternative to eternity.

The crosshatch looks like it is going somewhere. If I relax my eyes the difference between the top petals of the camellia and the background fades. That could use more work. They are not transparent, like the left side of the bottle, so that must be addressed before you can quit.

And yes, being political is bad news.


David Richardson

May 3, 2012, 9:15 AM

Very interesting report. The poles you describe are familiar to me, if I'm getting you correctly. Kaji Aso, in his teaching, always emphasized the common roots of art and science, encouraging us to use drawing and painting to study the world, to forget about expression. Yet he was a master at ink painting and calligraphy, and his large oil and acrylic paintings were purely expressive, mysterious, ambiguous fields of space and color. My own recent work is in labor-intensive furniture pieces that incorporate surfaces with gestural drawing inspired by both Hokusai and Twombly—my rationale is a conceit (or inspiration) that the Japanese tea bowl is the perfect object combining utility and high art. But at the moment I'm ready to stretch canvas and spread color, explore space and memory. Anyway, nice drawing. Kaji Aso would just say "do more".

Maybe politics is much the same as painting. It should be based on really looking hard at what's actually there.


Alan Pocaro

May 3, 2012, 10:11 AM

I second John's thoughts about g(G)od. Being an atheist in the Western sense is probably not the worst conclusion you could come to, and while I may be wrong, I think I've gleaned an interest in Eastern thought emanating from your prose. I'm not sure I would label myself as a Taoist, or Buddhist, but they are rich sources of meaning to me that seldom if ever speak of God.

Plus, I think you're just suffering from the Libertarian's curse, you've come to the stark conclusion that negative liberty (or freedom-to) is nihilism, and that our society is pretty meaningless, unless you think the next big sale at Target is life's raison d'etre.

As far as art goes, remember those pears you painted a few years ago? That seemed like a solution to the problem that you are/were investigating. They had a spontaneity that was comparable to the ink drawings, but there was a strong sense of light as a result of the color. Paint 20 more of those and see where it takes you.

Glad you're back.



May 3, 2012, 11:46 AM

Being food for something else is not the sole alternative to eternity.

Becoming food for something else is its own kind of eternity. But what alternatives did you have in mind?

If I relax my eyes the difference between the top petals of the camellia and the background fades.

The idea was to generate luminosity over the top of the flower, as if it were reflecting light. Clearly it's not working.

Kaji Aso would just say "do more".

Kaji Aso would be correct.

Maybe politics is much the same as painting. It should be based on really looking hard at what's actually there.


I've gleaned an interest in Eastern thought emanating from your prose.

That would be correct. I've been a semi-serious Buddhist for some time and have read about it extensively, with some Taoism as well. Buddhism has the advantage of being a non-theistic religion, and there have been some serious attempts, most notably by Stephen Batchelor, to discard the remaining superstitious accretions that it has picked up in the 2500 years since the historical Buddha. But there are still quite a lot of them and Buddhism is a religion after all. Nevertheless it has informed a lot of my thinking about the nature of reality and consciousness, and prompted me to examine what's going on in the aesthetic experience with equal scrutiny.

You've come to the stark conclusion that negative liberty (or freedom-to) is nihilism.

Negative liberty is freedom-from, not freedom-to, but the upshot of either liberty and the ensuing meaningless of existence is a positive message. That life has only the meaning you attribute to it turns it into a blank canvas for you to form your own image. The emptiness is not that of the abyss, but that of openness.

Remember those pears you painted a few years ago?

We have them hanging in the kitchen. I tried painting a figure in the same style not long after. The technique won't bear any complexity. That's frustrating.


A Reader

May 3, 2012, 1:47 PM

While this may be sacrilege to suggest this to a painter, but have you ever considered making prints? In particular, your approach would translate well into color woodcuts in which would activate the texture of your flat planes. This could introduce the complexity you are seeking while maintaining the vitality of your bold line work.


Alan Pocaro

May 3, 2012, 1:50 PM

The technique won't bear any complexity.

Why does it have to be complex? I've been struggling for ages to capture the profundity of a guy like Morris Louis' sublime simplicity. I'm not having much luck by the way. I want to get away from excessive gesture, but my paintings always look like these weird Dekooning things. It's the fun (or not) of being an artist! "Simple is Profound," didn't Darby say that? or was it "Fun"... Anyway, amp up the scale and see if that substitutes for complexity.


John Link

May 4, 2012, 3:30 PM

Typically "eternity" means day after day, year after year, century after century, without end. One interesting alternative to this conception is that "eternity" means the absence of succession, just one day, so to speak. When you enter that day, what happens to your temporal remains is beside the point.

You could get technical and ask if change is possible within this day, and if it is, then isn't it just another form of succession? But then, according to several thinkers, change is not compatible with perfection because if a thing is perfect, the only possible change is for it to become imperfect. Likewise, change is not possible amongst pure spirits because, having no parts, they have nothing that can change. When you enter spirit mode you somehow continue, but never change. You reach a kind of perfect fulfillment. This kind of thinking does boggle my mind.

So, I simply find that using ideas that describe temporal existence to conceptualize a mode that is outside time as we know it leads to difficulties that neither prove nor disprove anything of relevance.

There is another alternative that leaves the successive notion of eternity intact. We and other creatures could possibly continue our existence beyond death, but not forever (whatever the hell that means). It is not an all or nothing thing even though that is usually how the question is framed.

If you have not read Whitehead's Process and Reality you probably should. He proposes the successive notion of eternity, but uses the effects that the present has on the future as the mode by which we are immortal (like your thought that becoming food is a kind of eternity). In his system the memory of God is the ultimate repository for these bazillions of effects. Watered down as that is for those of us who do not want to die, at a conference during his life he was asked if God ever forgot and answered "Yes," adding insult to injury. God may be eternal but we are not, not even in this puny mode of being held in something's memory.

When I first started grappling with this stuff at age 18 I quickly found my intellect was not up to the task. I wanted to levitate as a demonstration that there was more to existence than meets the eye—just bypass all the thinking with something palpable and undeniable. That of course was not to be. A Middle English book called The Cloude of Unknowyng had a defining effect on me. Without deprecating what I know and how I know it, stripping myself of all that, is sometimes fruitful for approaching the unapproachable issues. Unfortunately it is not a solution. The other side, if there is another side, remains a blank. But that does not mean it is not there, nor does it mean that it is completely inaccessible from where we are now. Occasionally I have been fortunate enough to get a glimpse of that other side. Those experiences have been rare, all too rare.


Walter Darby Bannard

May 7, 2012, 10:44 AM

Art, politics, law, people, and other things need to be considered and judged case by case. Libertarian simply means you are doing this in politics. It will, of course, bring you in conflict with those who habitually slip all circumstances into categories of value, as does any rigorous application of common sense. But everything changes, and the exhilaration of judging independently on the spot with your own God-given (if I may) brain is quite worth the trouble. From what I can see, your recent experience was nothing less than a moderately discomfiting step up wisdomwise. (How's that for a vulgar neologism?)

Questions of past and future and eternity and existence are just consequences of our concept of a present. Their practical usefulness is questionable. Thinking about them is fun, but it has its limits.


Ramon Bofill

June 5, 2012, 10:48 PM

Thank you for writing what you feel here. It was nice to read your thoughts and feel connected.



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