Making Mountains in Virginia
Mountains started creeping into my work through collage and old National Geographics. Next thing I knew, they were appearing in the crinkly, thick paintings on rice paper I’d been experimenting with. When I got to VCCA, stuck as usual during that adjustment period, I found a copy of the I Ching in a used bookstore and asked it what kind of artist am I. “Mountain Keeping Still” was the answer. “Be still when it’s time to be still. Move when it’s time to move. Like this there are no mistakes.” What a comfort that answer was: I could do right by doing nothing! Just get out of the way and let it happen.
Here are a few snapshots of works in progress and made at Virginia Center for Creative Arts in November-December, 2011.
Visual Journal from VCCA
With a decent camera on my phone, I decided to keep a visual journal of the days’ progress during my residency in Virginia. Knowing the frustration of getting started, I thought this would be a good way to see the evolution of ideas. Here are a few snippets, along with some ramblings from the sketch book.
Painting Like a Master
As part of my summer improvement, I took a course at Laguna Gloria Art School, “How to Paint like the Old Masters Made Easy!” Paint a Rembrandt in only 4 weeks, said the description! What they don’t mention is that it’ll take at least a year or two of diligent painting to finish your shoddy imitation Rembrandt, but it only took one class for my mind to see the numerous possibilities created by knowing this technique.
For one thing, it’s totally abstract. With each pass (you only do one color at a time, darks, lights, or mids, and wait a week for it to dry before the next), the portrait is broken down into the shapes created by the light, not a nose, eye, chin. The process is more like sculpting, really, as color barely comes into it and each coat is a thin layer that is mostly taken back off, so as not to leave a single brush stroke or glob. The thought was that through prolonged time and work, the artist would be able to bring out the light of God in their subject.
What really got me thinking during the process what how much PROCESS is involved. Not to discount the artistry that separates Rembrandt (or Jesus, Vermeer, the other guy I’m hopelessly trying to copy) from his unremembered peers, but that an accountant, an engineer, a housewife can take this course and get anywhere close to a 17th century painting just by showing up every week is somehow comforting. The myth I carry around about modern painting is that there have to be constant jolts of insight, moments of clarity when the artist knows exactly what to do and it all falls together in a few perfect strokes. This is a lot like beginning meditation and hoping for that one moment of enlightenment. While that moment will come, it’s impermanent, unsustainable, and can become the bar for every meditation after. The real transformation comes with sustained effort not sexy, not mythical, just plain old hard work with focused attention.
This is not to say I’ve thrown my modern painting out the window I love working for those moments of clarity when everything is finally just easy and right, but it’s good to have a back-up plan for the days when they muses are on holiday.
The class, by the way, is offered regularly at Laguna Gloria and taught by Katherine Turner Mays. Her website is here.
Letter from France, no. 1
I’m at an artist residency in a tiny little town in southern France called Pampelonne. There is a cafe, run by a Brit, open occasionally for lunch and dinner, and a grocery, open 3 hours in the morning, closed 4 hours, and then 3 hours in the afternoon. Aside from that, it’s mostly old people, farmers and the like, with the occasional stray musician or writer.
Rob and Els, the dutch couple who run the residency, are in their late fifties and moved here 5 years ago to begin renovating this amazing old house built in 1600 for the notaire. They are both artists, and this house is a continuing art and architectural project for both of them. The walls are covered in interesting 20th century European art, mostly works on paper, which I of course like. Rob was an interior and architectural design professor for 20 years in Holland, and is a major collector of things. I made the mistake of borrowing a very sexy silver tea pot from the “common room”, only to run into him in the hallway and see his face pale. Turns out only the computer in the common room is common. He had never used this tea pot, which is the point where we differ. I love a good object, but think they should be used, to be truly appreciated. Ah well, not mine to decide.
They are both petite and robust, sun-burned and salt of the earth type’s, especially Els. She makes her own yogurt (bond!) and dense wheat bread, and collects wild flowers and berries for delicious jams. She’s a bit doctrinaire, as Rob is incapable of censuring anyone for anything, and I was put off by this at first. But now that I’ve been here a week, I think we are getting to understand each other better. Both are eager to be helpful in facilitating our projects, which we discuss over breakfast. They know now that I’m obsessed with clouds and light, so we always have a long discussion about what the clouds are up to today, followed by some reference to music injected by Rob, who plays piano and has a band here. It’s really funny, actually, it feels a little like if my parents decided to start a residency in their house and just started taking in people from other countries. They are so dear together, out in the garden having lunch, laying a new floor, talking over each other (until Els always quiets and lets Rob carry on), and watching them together in this place they’ve created is really something. But, being a resident here feels a little hap-hazard. They have their schedule, and you figure out how to fit into it. If they’re planning a dinner all together, they want you to be there, regardless of what projects you might have going on (very much my dad!). There’s a little sigh of the place expanding whenever they go out the parents have left and now you can run around make mischief! Not that I do, but I like knowing that I could.
It’s taken me a little while to get going where the painting is concerned my studio is also my bedroom, and it’s a beautiful room with 12 foot ceilings, hard wood floors, and antique wall paper. I brought smaller paper and watercolors thinking I wouldn’t make much of a mess, but I get bored very quickly if I feel I can’t make a mess. Finally I’ve figured out how to make a sort of controlled mess, and as I hoped, restrictions only make it more interesting. It’s true that if you have lemons, you can always make lemonade, but you can also wander out into the garden and see what’s growing there. Els gathered together a box of 19th century table cloths, fabrics, and old wallpaper to collage with. There are many possibilities.
But while the painting has been up and down, I was lucky to procure a cello from a neighbor (only in France would your neighbor in a rural village have a cello lying around). It’s name is Maurice, and it has a low, world-weary, cigar-smoking tone. Perfect for old folk songs, it plays a sort of toothless Bach. Pierre, who lent it to me, is also the helper to Rob and Els. Els says they are Basil and Cybil of Fawlty Towers, and he’s their Emmanuel. Pierre has one eye that darts around while he talks but he can also focus them both at you, which makes for a lot to think about while he’s talking to you in his very southern french. His girlfriend Chloe is a very talented violinist and is using the cello to give lessons. When we went to fetch the cello, I played it for a while in their living room while everyone sat in the kitchen having a coffee. They said they never knew the cello could have such a tone, and asked if I would give a lesson to Chloe on technique. It’s the least I can do to have that security blanket with me in an unfamiliar place.
I was prepared for having to play to the ears of everyone else in the house, but nothing beyond that. Then last night, there was a concert we were invited to in a neighboring village. I was deep in my book and had to convince myself to go have a life experience. When I came out to meet them to go, Pierre told me I had to bring my cello, it was going to be more of an open improvisation than a concert and I was going to play! I cannot tell you the depths of discomfort I felt upon arriving in this old chateau that is now a sort of lodging for troubled children and teens. The concert was actually an improv night, and we all had to participate in improvised singing exercises and skits. In french. And, we had to sign up on a board to perform, and Pierre readily signed us up for several spots, and then suggested we start out while everyone was still getting settled. So that pretty much broke me in to the most awkward situation I could really imagine. By our second bout on stage, Pierre had me start out (mind you we are making this all up on the spot, not working from songs we know or anything), which was good because I got to choose the key. I played something typically melancholy and cello-y, and he fit in perfectly on guitar. We ended it with a little spare back and forth of pizzicato. When we stopped everyone was strangely silent. Then we all sort of breathed in together and they all cheered, “Ouiaaah!”
Letter from France, no. 2
Since I last wrote, Pierre and Chloe and I have become old friends. You move fast when you’re only in a place for a short time, and several nights I’ve gone over to their house for dinner and to play music. It’s not like interactions in my normal 21st century life I don’t have their phone numbers but I’ll stop by their house on the corner of the square after my late afternoon bike ride and see if they’d like to have dinner together a few hours later. They remind me of people I would befriend in Austin: they’re part of a Community Supported Agriculture group and have a fabulous backyard garden. They give me an aperitif from Pierre’s home village and after I show them how Alice Waters improved ratatouille (cook the eggplant separate!) and we eat a cut of meat I’m pretty sure I would find under the moral age limit, we finish the meal with homemade yogurt and a preserve made of some untranslatable wild plant. I blithely ask them if they’d like to visit America, and am surprised by their almost hostile disinterest. Pierre is very argumentative and loves to hate on America but I’ve learned to dish it out from my years in Paris, and we end in a truce.
We enjoy improvising music together, and Chloe, who used to work for the local tourism bureau, suggests we go to an abandoned medieval cathedral on a cliff to hear the sound. We can ask for the key at a café in a neighboring village and hike a few miles out into the wilderness to play in a setting of which Bach would have approved. The village itself, Las Plancas, died out a century ago when the inhabitants contracted leprosy. After the last were gone, the place was pillaged for stone to build other towns, but the cathedral was left. We make a date to go there Saturday, my last day.
When I mention the adventure to Rob and Els and the other residents, everyone decides they’d like to come to the “concert”, and a picnic is planned. Saturday morning is hot, and we trek out early with cello, violin, two guitars for Pierrot (excessive for a hike, no?), and a little wooden folding chair for me. Els and the residents follow with candles and picnic.
The place is magical. It’s immense inside a real cathedral, with vaulted ceilings a mile up and light streaming through skinny stained glass windows. The nave is caked in parts with the crumbling remains of a fresco, only ghostly apparitions of saints and apostles, and the floor is dirt.
The sound is breathtaking, as our strings reverberate off the tall, dark walls of dusty stone. The second-guessing that usually accompanies my improvisation is replaced by disbelief. Music tumbles out freely as we respond to each other and the magnetism of the moment. At one point as we finish a piece, we look up to find a dozen hikers with poles and cameras applauding. They never expected to find music in the wilderness, and we know we will never repeat that composition again.