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I have a project that needs tending this morning so I am going to replay a post about a painting from the enigmatic Symbolist painter, Fernand Khnopff, whose work has been described as “visual realism combined with a mood of silence, isolation, and reverie.” It also includes an interesting video about this painting from the Khan Academy which is a great free site for well done courses and videos on a wide variety of subjects. For those of you with a lot of extra time these days, it’s worth a look.

Fernand Khnopff I Lock the Door Upon Myself

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God strengthen me to bear myself;
That heaviest weight of all to bear,
Inalienable weight of care.

All others are outside myself;
I lock my door and bar them out
The turmoil, tedium, gad-about.

I lock my door upon myself,
And bar them out; but who shall wall
Self from myself, most loathed of all?…

Christina Rossetti

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The painting at the top, I Lock My Door Upon Myself,  is from Belgian Symbolist painter Fernand Khnopff who lived from 1858 until 1921.  The title is taken from a verse of a poem, Who Shall Deliver Me? (shown in part above), from Christina Rossetti, the pre-Raphaelite poetess whose brother,  Dante Rossetti, was an influence on the work of Khnopff.

It’s a haunting painting, one that always makes me stop a bit when I stumble across an image of it. Perhaps it is the symbolist elements in it but for me it is probably the beautiful construction of forms and color that give the overall piece an almost abstract feel. Just a great image in so many ways.

I came across a video from the free educational series Khan Academy that offers a short and insightful exploration of the painting’s symbolism. Very interesting if you have five minutes or so.

Hold On, Hold On

I was looking at this painting above this morning, one that resides with me now here in the studio. It’s from back in 2011 and is called Dissolve. It really spoke to me from the moment I realized it was finished and laid down the brush.

It still does.

It’s a simple piece with complex feelings, one that makes me immensely happy and slightly sad at the same time. It’s contented yet wistful and yearning, something mirrored in the beauty and solidity of the fields in the foreground set against the dissolving colors of the sky.

With it’s duality of feelings, it’s a very human piece, I guess. And that bit of humanness is what struck me this morning. While I have alternated between high and low emotions lately, looking at this painting for a bit seemed to modulate all of these feelings.  The lower ebbs are still there but there is a visible counterweight that takes away some of their depth, makes them more tolerable.

This modulating effect might be the most valuable aspect of my work, at least for myself. Without it, everything else that the work provides for me is worthless.

So, this morning I sit with this image in mind and feel… like a human. And, for the most part, that’s a good thing.

Hope you’re feelng human this morning and can find your way, perhaps with a little modulation of your own, to a good day. Here’s a song from one of my favorites, Neko Case, from a 2006 appearance on Conan. Here’s Hold On, Hold On.

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“The Americans have no sense of doom, none whatever. They do not recognize doom when they see it.”

James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

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At the bottom of the moods swings that occupy my waking days and dreaming nights as of late. In the studio at 5:30 this morning, a Tom Waits song playing with huge clunking beats and his coarse, smoke burnt voice yelling over it all, And the earth died screaming/While I lay dreaming

Shuffling through things, trying to find something to hold on to and I come across this little painting, one that I quickly did years ago for my eyes only. Never meant to be shared, just a private reminder to myself of those days when the dark crows of doom have flown around my door. Meant to keep me aware of the signs that appear when these crows are coming back, to remind me of the immense fatigue and sense of doom they bring with them so that I might be able to stay clear of them this time.

To avoid hopelessness.

But sometimes hopelessness cannot be avoided.

If you have been at this point, you know there are only two outcomes:  to succumb to the doom or fight. You realize that hope, at that point, has become your enemy, a distraction that weakens your resolve and keeps you from being fully engaged in the battle.

Hope is a tool used by agents of doom, to tyrants and despots who tie themselves to religions that keep the masses passive with promises in lives after this one on earth. Hope makes you look forward when you need to be only in the now. It makes you sloppy and inattentive, willing to surrender to nearly the same terms and conditions that have brought you to this point.

Hope is a promise unfulfilled, a wish without action.

No, in times of doom, hopelessness is your greatest ally.

Hopelessness demands action.

Hopelessness is the greatest agent of change.

Hopelessness is fearless.

I wasn’t planning on writing this this morning. God, I want to be cheery and optimistic and, dare I say, hopeful. I have always preached hope on this blog but that was in times when I thought the future was still a bright sky, not a dark and foreboding one like the one I see now, where the storm clouds have been amassing for the last four years. I’ve watched them gather but hope made me think it would somehow resolve without me engaging, that the sky would brighten of its own accord.

But I was wrong to trust hope. I can’t turn to hope this morning.

No, I am looking to hopelessness as my savior. I’ve have sometimes visited that abject blackness down where hopelessness dwells and it has always sent me back upwards. It has invariably set me in action and stiffened my resolve. It has made me realize that this life is a precious thing that is worth fighting for, against all hope.

Against all hope. I never thought about that term before, though I have used it on more than one occasion. I think we are at that point, where we must struggle against all hope with hopelessness as our great ally.

So, for the time being, I am setting hope aside. Oh, I’ll hope you’re doing well and staying safe because I want us all to have a brighter future at some point soon. But I will not depend on hope or trust that it will bring that desired future.

Only hopelessness can do that.

 

black coffee

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I’m feelin’ mighty lonesome
Haven’t slept a wink
I walk the floor and watch the door
And in between I drink
Black coffee

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In the studio early again and a little tired from riding the rollercoaster ride of recent times. Lots to do but it’s hard to getting the engine fully rolling. This thing grips tight and breaking free enough to really create is sometimes a tough task. I spoke with a gallery owner yesterday who said that one of their upcoming and much anticipated shows would be much smaller than they had hoped because the show’s artist had a hard time completing the pieces for the show because of the anxiety caused by the pandemic.

I understood that artist’s feelings completely and learning of their struggle gave me a little comfort in knowing that it wasn’t only me.

So, here I am this morning in the studio with the light outside struggling to emerge and a ball of anxiety in my gut just waiting to wake up. Much I can do but all I want to do is sip my black coffee and look out the window at the wind ruffling the limbs of the white pines above the milling deer in my yard. Maybe listen to a little Ella.

Sounds like a plan to me.

Gonna proceed with that plan now. Hope you have a plan to make your day a good one. Here’s part of a post about the song Black Coffee, along with Ella’s stellar version of it, that ran five years back. It also has a link to great poem that might help you through your day, so take a look. Or not. I don’t care about anything this morning except my cuppa black coffee.

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The sultry Black Coffee was written in 1948 by Sonny Burke and originally recorded by Sarah Vaughan and a few years later by Peggy Lee. There have been many, many covers of this song and most are very good. But there are four versions that really stick out for me, all very distinctly different. They are Vaughan’s original, the one from Peggy Lee, k.d. lang‘s darkly twangy version and the one I am featuring this morning from the great and grand Ella Fitzgerald.

Her version is elegantly spare with her voice and piano interweaving beautifully. It is darkly tinged but there is such strength in her phrasing that it keeps the song feeling surprisingly upbeat. Just a great, great song.

A little bit of trivia about this version: It was the favorite song of Nobel Prize winning poetess Wislawa Szymborska , who requested it be performed at her funeral. You might remember Szymborska from a blog entry here last month that featured her poem Possibilities.

So,give a listen as you sip the morning beverage of your choice. Maybe a little black coffee…

Murder Most Foul

Last week, Bob Dylan released his first original song in eight years. Titled Murder Most Foul the 17 minute song is primarily focused on the 1963 assassination of JFK but uses it more a point of departure for a guided ride on a hazy time machine that moves through the decades that followed.

Over a slow paced backing with piano, drum and strings that gives it the feel of an elegy or requiem, Dylan takes the imagery of that dark November and weaves it together with a long list of wildly disparate references to musical selections and pop culture figures.

It all becomes a mesmerizing drone.

On one hand, it seems to be just a mishmash of words and references with no real meaning.

But on the other hand, it feels like it is pointing us to this moment as an endpoint for an arc that began on that day in 1963, with every moment and event since, large or small, pushing us forward to this culmination.

Like we’ve been on a journey since that day and this moment and situation was our ultimate destination.

And for many whose lives have spanned that time period, that feeling is one that makes a certain amount of sense. For these folks, that day in 1963 has cast a shadow over everything since and there is a constant groping through the detritus of the years to find the connecting strands that will somehow make sense of it all. For them, there seems to be something going on, a set pattern of small indiscernible nudges, that is just out of reach or understanding.

And this song somehow feels like it is bringing finality to that pattern’s path.

I can’t say whether that this is true or not or if I even believe what I’ve just written. Maybe it’s an epic. Or maybe it’s just a load of crap. I guess, like all art, it’s a subjective opinion.

For me, it’s just oddly compelling. I’ve probably listened to this song forty times or more in the past week, sometimes playing it on a loop while I have been stretching canvasses or working at some other simple physical tasks. I find it oddly soothing, especially after listening to it immediately after watching the news reports on the current situation. I find myself pausing at certain recurring moments in each playing of the song and catching a few of same couplets, out of the many that make up the song, again and again.

Maybe I am trying to find the pattern in this song that might somehow bring to light the pattern that has possibly spanned the past 56+ years.

I don’t know.

I’m sharing a version with lyrics so, if you have the desire and 17 minutes to spare, give a listen. It will give you something to think about in your time of isolation. Have a good day.

 

A Golden Solitude

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Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong.

Winston Churchill

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The solitary tree has been a vital part of my work from the beginning. Actually, the word vital understates its importance.

I couldn’t find the image of a painting from a number of years ago that I wanted to see again. This sent me on a search through a maze of files and images from over the past twenty years. I probably spent more time doing this than I should have but it became one of those obsessive things.

Shuffling through these images, one after another, that form of the lone tree just jumped out at me. I say jumped because of the way in which it surprised me. I, of all people, know that the single Red Tree has been important and prevalent in my work. There is no getting around that fact. I have literally been called the “Red Tree guy.”

I understand its symbolism and meaning very well.

But it just seemed different, more away from me personally.

There were many that had slipped my mind that made me stop to look closer. I wasn’t seeing myself anymore in those pieces but found myself admiring the character they taken on in the time they had been absent in my memory. There was a strength and dignity in them that was palpable.

They had somehow expanded in the time I had lost track of them.

They were no longer me. They were them.

It was as though my forgetfulness had made them grow in solitude and they, out of necessity, had grown stronger as a result. Much like the words above from Churchill, which were written in a letter to his mother in 1899, a few years after his father had died.

I may have been the symbolic father of those works, those many Red Trees, but their strength was their’s alone, obtained in their solitude. I felt bad that I had lost track of them but was so pleased at what they had become.

They were beyond me.

Which is all I could hope.

 

Oddly enough, I have some things that I must do this morning and thought I’d rerun this post from 2014 about a recently completed painting. Both the painting and the theme of this post resonate strongly with me personally. Have a good day.

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We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won’t do harm – yes, choose a place where you won’t do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine. 

–E.M. Forster, A Room With a View

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Choose a place where you won’t do harm…

I don’t want to, nor do I think I should, say much more about this new painting, a 24″ by 36″ canvas that carries the title Cast Your Shadow.

I like the idea represented by the quote above from E.M. Forster where one seeks out a place of their own, a place where they can stand without causing harm. It’s a theme that I’ve always thought of in terms of being a smooth stone on a creek bed, pushed and polished by the current through the ages until at last coming to rest in a spot where the water flows easily over it.

The stone finds it’s place where it does no harm. It doesn’t disturb the water and the water simply passes by.

It seems like such a small desire, to find a place where the water flows easily by or where one can stand in the sun without their shadow blocking the light from others. But the simplicity of this wish is deceiving.

It is the work of a lifetime.

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