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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Frost’

View of California Wildfires From Above the Clouds


“In all your years and all your travels,” I asked, “what do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned about life?”

He paused a moment, then with the twinkle sparkling under those brambly eyebrows he replied: “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on. In all the confusions of today, with all our troubles . . . with politicians and people slinging the word fear around, all of us become discouraged . . . tempted to say this is the end, the finish. But life — it goes on. It always has. It always will. Don’t forget that.”

–Robert Frost , on his 80th birthday, speaking to journalist Ray Josephs, 1954


What a time it is.

Much of the imagery you see these days is downright terrifying and disheartening, from the apocalyptic fire scenes from the west coast to the images of clashes in the streets between protesters and police to the scenes of armed white supremacists being given virtual carte blanche treatment as they move about the country to the ugly, hateful stupidity displayed so publicly now by the president’s red hatted followers as they gather to piss and moan about “their country” being taken from them.

Oh, what a time it is.

I wish I could quote Dickens and say that it was the best of times, it was worst of times but quite honestly, where is the best of times to be found these days?

I saw the photo at the top of the California wildfires as seen from above the clouds and at first glimpse thought it was a closeup of the coronavirus. It wouldn’t surprise me if they had somehow sprang from the same Pandora’s Box and ultimately resembled one another. The destructive effect of the two on the lives of those involved is much the same, that’s for sure.

I guess I can only look to the words of Robert Frost and many others who have told us that life will go on. Even though they seem wise enough that I want to trust that they somehow know this to be true, these days I find myself doubting them. But for today, I am going to trust their judgement.

Life goes on.

Here’s the Beatles with their Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da which uses that phrase as a refrain. Keep it in mind as you hopefully have a good Sunday.


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Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

― Robert Frost, West-Running Brook

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The painting at the top is called Socially Distant. It’s a 20″ tall by 60″ wide canvas (much larger than it appears on the screen) that is part of my annual solo show, Social Distancing, scheduled to open June 5 at the Principle Gallery. Of course, I say scheduled because of the uncertainty for anything in the near future given our current situation.

The series of cityscapes I am doing in recent months was began just as Covid-19 was just taking hold in Asia. Not many here were following it closely or, at least, closely enough. I can say with all certainty that when I started painting these pieces they were not intended to be a commentary on this situation. I saw them as being both about its constructed form– its shapes, colors and contrasts– and the feeling of anonymity and separateness that the crowded streets and looming structures that a city offers.

But sometimes the work and the times converge. As the crisis has unfolded these paintings seem more and more prescient with their empty streets and vacant windows. The anonymity that I initially saw transformed into the social distancing required to combat the spread of this virus.

Even the colors seemed to point to this crisis. The reddish skies suggest the the warmth and fetid fertility of the hot zones that have often spawned outbreaks.

This particular painting has one differing feature from the others in the series –a lone figure standing in a second story window, just to the right of center. I wasn’t sure about this and left the figure out of the painting for weeks as I mulled it over. But as the current situation unfolded and grew, the figure loomed larger in my mind and I finally relented.

In a way, its inclusion makes the vacant city seem even emptier.

To accompany this piece, I’ve included a Robert Frost poem that I have liked for a long time, Acquainted With the Night. In this context, I especially like the last four lines of the poem and their convergence with the empty clock face high atop a tower in the center of the painting that serves as a false moon and creates a strong diagonal in the picture plane between it, the moon and the lone figure.

Take care today and have as good a day as possible.

 

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The poet Robert Frost wrote a wonderful preface to the 1939 edition of his collected poems. It was titled The Figure a Poem Makes and it described how he viewed his process of unveiling the true nature of his work. Reading it, I was struck by the similarities between his work as a poet and how I view my work as painter.

For example, the following paragraph-I have highlighted individual lines that jumped out at me. I probably could have highlighted them all:

It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life–not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion. It has denouement. It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood-and indeed from the very mood. It is but a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last. It finds its own name as it goes and discovers the best waiting for it in some final phrase at once wise and sad-the happy-sad blend of the drinking song.

A painting often begin in delight. A certain tone of color, the way a line bends, the manner in which a brushstroke reveals the paint or in how the contrast of light and dark excites the eye.  The delights pull you in and keep you engaged and it is not until you have finished that you are able to understand the sum of these elements, to detect the wisdom, the meaning, behind it all. It is only then that you know what you have uncovered and how it should be named.

The work itself, if left to its own means, knows what it is and will tell you.

Then there is this gem of a paragraph:

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing. The impressions most useful to my purpose seem always those I was unaware of and so made no note of at the time when taken, and the conclusion is come to that like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with against the day when we may want to strike a line of purpose across it for somewhere. The line will have the more charm for not being mechanically straight. We enjoy the straight crookedness of a good walking stick.

I have often spoke of the need to be have my emotions near the surface when I work, to always need to feel excited and surprised by what I am working on. To recognize things I never knew as being part of me. If I am not moved by the thing I am working on at any given time, how can I expect others to be moved by it? This paragraph speaks clearly to my experience as an artist.

Then there is the final sentences of the essay:

Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being. Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it. Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a petal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.

My translation of this, as a painter, is that the work must be free to move and grow of its own volition. It tells you where it wants to go and, if you don’t constrain it and try to push it to a place where it was not intended to go, will reveal its truth to you. If you can do that, it remain always fresh, always in the present and always filled the excitement and surprise that it contained in that burst when it was created.

I don’t want to bore you too much. It’s a great essay and is a valuable read for anyone who makes art in any form. You can see ( and download) the whole book, The Collected Poems of Robert Frost, with this essay in full by clicking here.

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GC Myers- Unafraid 2015There’s nothing I’m afraid of like scared people.

–Robert Frost,  A Hundred Collars

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I think those eight words above from the Robert Frost poem, A Hundred Collars, says it all for me at the moment.  I don’t find myself filled with the fear of ISIS or terrorists in general.  I certainly don’t fear  that someone, a small child or a widow,  who has entered themselves into a long and grueling process to come here will one day attack me.

No, I am more afraid of the panic of scared people who throw calm thought and rationality out the window.  People who allow the fear raised by others to dictate their response.  People who react in a knee-jerk manner that does nothing to alleviate their fears and sometimes does harm to themselves and others around them.  People who fear the darkness and shoot blindly into it.

Don’t get me wrong– it’s a scary moment in time.  It deserves our full attention, cautious observation and appropriate response.  But to react in a reactionary manner that alters our identity, the makeup of who we are as a people, is to fall prey to the will of the terrorists.

So, while you may have fears, be careful and be calm.  Breath.  Think.  Know the world around you and try to let those fears go for a time.

I think that last short paragraph applies to the piece at the top, a new painting, 3.5″ by 5.5″ on paper, that I am calling Unafraid.

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There’s a lot going on so I am a little short on time.  I thought I would rerun a post from this day four years ago that jibes well with a thought that has been going through my mind lately.  A while back, my friend Linda Leinen (you might recognize her as Shoreacres in the comments section) referred to a Robert Frost line– No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.  I have long contended that one of the most difficult parts of my job is maintaining that sense of excitement for myself in the studio, finding that thing that brings me wonder and surprise.  For me, that normally comes from varying the ways in which I work with the materials that I use in my work.  The materials always seem to hold the key to new surprises, new breakthroughs.  Which brings me to the post below.

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Helen Frankenthaler- Savage Breeze

Helen Frankenthaler- Savage Breeze

There are no rules. That is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is about.

–Helen Frankenthaler

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I’m using this quote from Helen Frankenthaler, the famed Abstract Expressionist, as a sort of follow-up or addenda to yesterday’s post about change.  I remember reading about Frankenthaler when I was first beginning to really paint with purpose.  In an article that I read but can’t locate now, she spoke of how she came to her trademark stain paintings where very thinned oil paint is applied to unprimed canvas.  She said it was almost by accident that she first experienced the absorbing of the paint by the raw cotton canvas and how that it caused a reaction, a breakthrough, in her thinking about how she wanted to express herself within her work. 

She felt that all artistic breakthroughs were the result of a change in the way one saw and used their materials.  It could entail changing the type of material used or using them in a more unconventional manner, as her above quote stating there are no rules infers.

This immediately clicked with me at the time I read it.  I had been trying to shape my way of thinking to fit the materials I was using at the time.  Unsuccessfully.  What I needed to do was change the materials to fit the way I was thinking.  Allow my thought process more free rein and not cater to the restraints of materials.

That may sound kind of abstract but it allowed me to start working with my paints and grounds in a much different way, forming my own process that worked well for my way of thinking and has become entrenched in my thought process.  Even though it may be outside more traditional forms of using these same materials,this process has over time become as rigid in my use as the techniques used by the most steadfast adherent of the most traditional school of painting.  This is sort of what I was referring to when I mentioned the end of the cycle, as far as art is concerned.  You reach a certain point, a mastery of your materials, where there are few accidents, few surprises in the materials’ reactions and, as a result, fewer surprises in your own reactions. 

For most, this is the goal.  But I want that surprise, that not knowing exactly how the materials will react and that need to solve the problem presented by the need to express with the limitations of the materials used.  So I try to continually tweak, create a little tension in how the materials react to my use of them, to create a sense of surprise.  Breakthrough.

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We dance round in a ring and suppose, While the secret sits in the middle and knows.

–Robert Frost

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This is a new painting,  in size about 11″ square  on paper, that I will be showing at my next show that opens in a little over two weeks at the West End Gallery in Corning.  I call this piece Secret Inside.

I really didn’t know what to think of this piece after I painted it.  All of the elements fell into place strictly from a compositional standpoint, without a lot of rumination over meaning or intent.  Theysimply worked in the context of the scene.  It wasn’t until I had time to step back and study it for a bit that it started to reveal its meaning to me.  Or at least what it means to me.  You might see it differently.

I began to see the interior scene as the secret self, the part of us that we seldom expose to the outer world, which is seen out the window.  The guitar represents our hidden self-expression and creativity.  The painting on the wall (looks suspiciously like one of mine) represents the desire for beauty and the book on the table, the desire for knowledge.  The empty bottle symbolizes our weaknesses, our vices.  Perhaps the desire to forget. 

The table shows what might be seen illuminated in a glimpse from the outside and the overall darkness of the interior reveals itself as that dark part of us that is never visible to the outer world.  Or which we hope is never visible.

As I’ve said many times before here, this is only my personal take on this.  You might see something completely different, perhaps something much less symbolic or you might see it as something darker, more sinister. 

It all depends on your own secrets inside.

 

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