poetry project

New Space

Well, that was a depressing post that I’ve left up for way too long now. In real time, shortly after writing it, something turned around inside me and I didn’t feel so hopeless anymore. In fact, I feel re-energized. I love my new backyard studio. In fact, I don’t know how I ever painted without it. And it’s not because the space is sooooooooo amazing — it’s not. Its square footage is only adequate (17’ X 13’) and the ceiling is downright low — a mere 7 1/2 feet. However, it really is like going to a different place when I walk the 15 or so feet across the yard to it. Totally unlike the miserable 6 month period when I tried to paint in what had been the master bedroom of our old apartment in Watertown, MA. Yuck. Painting in the living quarters is not for me. But it is so awesome to be able to just duck into the house for a cup of tea, to cook something for myself for lunch, to not have to set off for the studio like an arctic explorer, armed with sufficient edibles to keep me sustained for a long haul, and feeling like if I’m making the schlep, it’d better be worthwhile. No fucking around allowed.

But now! I can fuck around! I can just dip in, do a thing or two, or look around and leave. I can work for a couple of hours in the evening after dinner, something I NEVER did when my studio was in a separate building miles away. I feel nicely apart, in my own art space, and also close to home, in a comfy, non-stifling way. I can’t wait for spring, for our garden to get going. Then it’ll be even better.

Anyway, I’ve been long on whining, short on pictures for some times now. Boring! You may remember a painting that I started this summer, inspired by one of Jesse’s poems (well, probably not — why would you?).  I picked it up again and have been trying to finish it. Here’s the three latest versions, most recent at the bottom:

It’s at the point where when I look back on the earlier iterations they look much better to me:  more open, airier. Of course back then, they looked empty, like not enough was going on. So I’ve been stuffing more and more bits into it, and now it looks overstuffed. Time to edit, obliterate, hack away. Prune. Give it some space.

Laziness. Or Synecdoche. Palimpsest.

So, I started to write about the poetry project and instead deviated yet again into the litany of my discontents. Yeesh. Did I forget to say how much I’m enjoying Jesse’s poems?

The main challenge in working from poems is that I'm so literal-minded, it takes me a while to get past the most obvious, pure illustrations that first spring to mind, to something a little more interesting, elusive, allusive, oblique. It's a fun challenge, though, in associative thinking.

When I wrote something to that effect to Jesse, he wrote back:

i think i know what you mean about the impulse toward the literal.  for me, when i'm responding to some other work (a painting, a poem, often a movie), i often start with some detail (not necessarily a primary one) and then spiral out or away from it, feeding more off of the state of mind into which the original work pushes me than off of further details in the original. and in the end, the original detail might disappear. other times i take several details and rearrange them in different ways and then look at the blank space on the page that now needs new connective tissue.

And that seems like a great way to approach making paintings as well as poems, especially for me:  to practice being more flexible and letting things go, once in a while. I hope that some of these paintings end up being completely different from the way I had envisioned them at the beginning, even if it means that when they’re finished one can no longer trace the thread that connects them, Ariadne like, to the original poem.

Here is one of the poems that I’ve been working with:

What They Wanted

I wanted to want—  what they wanted

To dig a pit and stand at its overhang

To wait for gusts—  lean when they did not come

I might have believed in palimpsests—  beneath my skin

A part of me wished to measure out my other parts and scatter them—

so long


—in the wind

A part a part a part a part


I don’t know that I can write specifically about what I am drawn to in poems, but it is usually an inchoate pull towards certain words or phrases, rather than the poem as a whole. One of the very few things I have retained from my many years of studying Latin is the rhetorical device synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part is substituted for the whole. (A contemporary example of this would be the use of “wheels” to mean a car.) Anyway, I've decided that my own approach to poetry (and novels too, actually) is fundamentally synecdochic:  certain parts of the text come to represent the whole text, in the congress of my mind. It’s a kind of selective vision:  my brain only really focuses on the parts it likes the most, and sort of ignores the rest. You could justly say that I’m a lazy reader, and don’t take the trouble to integrate the work as a whole, as the author created it. But I’m going to call myself an interpretive, nay, a synecdochic reader.

Anyway. I just decided after I wrote this paragraph, re-reading What They Wanted, that it’s even appropriate for me to read the poem that way, viz. the last line:

"a part a part a part a part"

So I feel fine about my reading habits.

The image that came to mind after reading this poem was of a kind of whirlwind, pieces eddying in mid-air, a cloud of undoing. I’ve explored a similar image before in the painting Atalanta.


Atalanta, for me, was about the process of making or unmaking yourself, caught in an ambiguous moment between creation and dissolution.

But that painting is kind of a squishy whirlwind. This poem makes me think of a person cut up into pieces, like a flesh-colored paper doll. Sharp edges. Angles. Discrete pieces of paint.

For the first time ever, I’ve been using tape to make hard edges and straight lines.

(The irony is that in creating an image of pieces blowing apart I’m actually carefully building the painting. Painstakingly constructing an image that’s supposed to be about deconstruction.)







This painting is a funny size, I forgot to write it down exactly, but something like 19.5” x 26.5".

Also, since the canvas is going to be stretched over board when it’s finished, I’m playing with the idea of having a shaped canvas, because I can cut the underlying board to whatever shape I want with my jigsaw. So the white areas are places I’m thinking of cutting out. We’ll see if this actually turns out to be something that fundamentally, structurally enforces the idea of the paintings, or is just an extraneous “cool” idea.

I’m thinking of making a bigger version as well, maybe 4’ x 3’. This poem, this image, really resonates with me.

I also very much like the line: "I might have believed in palimpsests— beneath my skin"

I love the word palimpsest. It’s the perfect metaphor for paintings, and for life. Coming from more medieval times, when there was no paper and parchment was so expensive that it was habitually scraped clean and then written on again.  All paintings are literally palimpsests, of course, layer over layer, the final image a thin surface crust over the history of its own making. And our bodies palimpsests of the years of our lives, although never scraped clean but only perpetually overwritten. Every new experience lying atop the accumulation of previous ones, so that we can only make out our past through the scrim of all that has come between. The illegible sum of our parts.

scatterplot detail2

Poetry Project

I have embarked on a new project, and uncharacteristically, it is a kind of collaboration. While we were on our blissful rafting trip down the John Day river a month ago, our friend Jesse Lichtenstein, a writer and poet, asked if I would be interested in collaborating, sharing his poems and my paintings and seeing what might transpire. On the John Day

I said yes immediately, even though I have never been much into the idea of working creatively with others before. I had always thought of myself as a studio tyrant, wielding absolute power over my tiny fiefdom, life or death, my way or the highway. And I am, I guess. All artists are. But having come to the point of near despair over my own work, having come to the brink of deciding to just . . . stop . . . because I can’t seem to find a way forward that feels right to me, working with input from someone else feels like a light in the tunnel, a way to make some work without laboring, camel-like, under my self-imposed burden.

Because for the past several years, I have not felt able to make work in a simple, straightforward fashion, comfortable in my skin in the studio. I have felt myself poised unnaturally under the spotlight of self-consciousness, that old well-poisoner. Every little thing I do, every move I make is somehow a reference on me. Is this the kind of painter I am? What does this say about me? My intelligence? My skill? Oh, you can’t do that! It is a pernicious kind of egotism, undermining everything I do before I get a chance to at least finish it and then assess what it might mean.

I am in search of a painting process, an art that feels completely natural to me, a way of working that regenerates itself, leading to further exploration, a deepening and complication of inquiry. I'm not talking about an unfortunate thing that happens to a lot of artists, where they find a method that works for them and simply start repeating themselves, where the work becomes a kind of brand, but about tapping a vein of work that, while necessarily narrowed to provide a certain focus, is deep and on-flowing. This search is inextricably linked to the search for self-knowledge, for how can I locate that vein if my own anatomy is mysterious to me? If I don't know what way of working best suits my particular form of intelligence and sensitivity? I have, however, long suspected that it is probably working from life. In the absence of physical data to be checked, verified, used as a springboard to more imaginative leaps, I tend to clamp down, feeling unsure of my bearings. I become anxious when I try to work solely or largely from my imagination, although that may sound somewhat counter-intuitive. I want something to look at, a tether to anchor me to something solid. Then I feel free to wander a bit, secure that I know where I am.

But I find myself blatantly jealous of all the artists who just know how they make their work, whatever their work is. And it makes me question very seriously whether I’m really meant to be doing this. I suppose there are as many different ways of coming to work as there are artists, but I particularly envy Anne Truitt’s description of how her ideas for new work came to her, in particular the absolute clarity, the lucid Platonic image of the piece simply appearing in mind, and having “only” to be physically realized.

In the last few months, I have become more conscious of how my work takes form. It sometimes happens unexpectedly. Just as I wake up, a series of three sculptures may present themselves somewhere that seems high over my head in my consciousness. They simply materialize, whole and themselves, in a rather stately way, and stand there, categorical in their simplicity. This can happen anywhere, not necessarily just after waking, but, characteristically, without any preparation on my part. Sometimes a single piece will appear; never more than three at once. I cannot make them all. Less than a quarter of them ever reach actuality. Other pieces result from a more or less conscious concentration on a particular area of emotionally charged personal experience—a person, say, or a series of events, or a period in my life. . . There seems no end to this kind of formulation. These concepts hover, already complete, it would seem, on the edge of my consciousness . . . when all this was new to me, I used to be overwhelmed and would wake up in the middle of the night flooded, inundated by peremptory demands for making these sculptures.  (Anne Truitt, Daybook)

Anyway. While I acknowledge that I feel lost right now, it is fun to work on paintings inspired by Jesse’s poems, because they’re not all about me. And it is a tremendous relief. What a bore I am!