Saturday, December 26, 2009

41. boxing day, 2009

Still waiting for class to re-launch, so two gifts - in keeping with the season. Theo and Ada. Pastel on paper.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

40. Nov. 19, 2009. Last Class of the Semester

Previous Post: Hope Brooks Meryman (1931-1975)

39. Hope Brooks Meryman (1931-1975)

( "Dove" by Hope Meryman, 1960s)

I missed class this last week because I was up in San Francisco attending the opening of an exhibit presented by a group called Lost Art Salon, which features historically significant and rediscovered artists whose work hails from 1970 or before.

My aunt Hopie died of cancer in 1975 at the age of 44 (my current age). She was a woodcut artist and a watercolorist primarily, whose prints and paintings still hang on all our walls, an enduring reminder of her talent, her eye, and her spirit, which was indelible. I was nine when she died. I’ve known a lot of people who have died since 1975. Few if any, are as present to me as she is. I can summon her voice in a second. I can picture her walking in my shed right now with every detail in tact, right down to cuff of her jeans. She has been here ever since, and maybe that’s because her paintings have remained such a constant in of our lives. Maybe that’s because she had such a strong personality. Maybe there’s no real difference between those two things.

In any case, through the efforts of her younger daughter – my cousin, Helena – a lot of those familiar prints, as well as some I hadn’t seen before, are once again on public view, providing occasion to look at Hopie’s work, and to reflect upon her life and approach, and see what can be learned from one who went before.

Hopie was my mother’s sister, the eldest of the brood that made painting the signature practice of the family. Three more of her sisters went on to become artists. She herself married the son of an extremely talented New England portraitist and landscape painter, who turned out to be a mentor to my other aunt (the one I attend class with), who in turn spawned two children of my generation who also show and sell successfully. The gene at question would seem to trace to my grandfather, Robert Brooks, several of whose letters to my grandmother from the front of the Great War contain sketches that would, had he chosen to pursue them further, have put him comfortably in the Maxfield Parrish School – but he did not. He became a rancher, and so (or so I have always assumed) we have Hopie to thank and to blame for being our creative pioneer, the first one danged fool enough to think there was room in the world for another artist with integrity.

And I use the term advisedly. I have long tried to gauge the nature of the ambition of my painting kin, to compare it to my own, basically because I think that as artists go, they are a remarkably healthy-minded bunch – almost to a fault. Some of that may have to do with the nature of the painting – a more sanguine activity than writing. Some of it may have to do with the fact that, though all approached their work with a clear professional eye and aspiration, none ever had to shoulder the burden of being the main breadwinner in their families. Still, the art game can be just as ugly as the writing game, fraught with just as many opportunities to lose focus, to forget why you’re doing this, to please the wrong masters and get caught up in destructive resentments and self-pity. And it’s true for anyone who has ever tried to climb a professional ladder, no matter how high or low you are, all you ever really see is the ass of the person just ahead of you. And that’s no fun...Unless you’re a dancer. I guess.

Among the artists and painters in my family, however, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of Rung Envy. I could be wrong, but of the lot, I’ve always suspected Hopie might have been the most at risk. She was a little more fiery than her sisters, and it can’t have been easy working in New York in the 60s when a lot of “important” careers were just beginning to explode. Also, of the sisters, she always seemed to me to the clearest, or most overt, in her determination to work and keep working. That’s not to say she was any more prolific than the others, just that they – my mother, her sister, my cousins even – are all incredibly, almost preternaturally, discreet in the way that they go about their work and their careers, finding ways to fit it in that make it seem, in addition to all the rest they do, a little like a magic trick – attending their openings to find out everything they’ve managed to get done while you weren’t looking. With Hopie, though, it always seemed a little more clear that you were renting her attention – from the work, I mean, and I mean that in the best, most laudable way. Even when I was six I understood that if you really really want to spend time with her, you should probably grab a pad and a pencil.

Whether that level of focus and determination ever spilled over into professional frustration, I have no idea. All I can say, having now returned from the exhibit up north, is that her work shows no trace of pollution. Quite the opposite, it’s about as centered as any statement can be.

In the first place, there is the medium. As I mentioned, she was a watercolorist as well, but the Lost Art show focused on woodcuts, the most mediating of mediums. All woodcuts are ultimately experiments, the success of failure of which depend upon elements over which the artist has not all that much control: the tackiness of the paper, the paint, the humidity of the air, but most of all, the wood. By the artist’s choice, the knots and the grain are the texture of the work and God’s gift to it, the source of all the happy accidents for which all artist are ever in search.

The woodcut artist has furthermore sacrificed the immediacy of her own line, since all the lines must be carveable and carved. That’s what provides the end-products their built-in tension: the blockiness and stolidity and flatness of the printed shapes versus the grace of the artist’s line, which in Hopie’s case so often chose to depict moving things – athletes, animals, children at play. All are stamps of life, with all the paradox that phrase entails.

And yet as much as she gave up, or gave over, to the wood in terms of line and texture, she took back in her choice of subject matter. Again, more so than for the sisters who followed her, subject matter is a pronounced feature of Hopie’s work. Not to say that her sisters don’t make careful and purposeful decision about what to paint, but in the grand scheme of things, they are never very spectacular decisions – nature based, light based, commonplace, closely observed, and all informed by the same basic understanding that it is the artist’s job to play the hand she is dealt, draw beauty from the subject, any subject – any flower, any tree, any hill -- through their own gifts and limitations. To put another way, what they choose to paint is not quite as important as how they paint it, and this puts them in league with the vast majority of working artists and writers.

Not so with Hopie (and in this respect I suspect I may feel an abiding kinship.) What she chose to look at WAS the point. To stand before a print by Hopie is to have one’s attention forcefully directed to what interested her, to the point that she often let her subjects float in the open space of the page (not something any of her sister would ever do, at least for the purpose of showing in a gallery). And that makes sense, of course, given the burden of woodcutting. The sheer labor intensivity of the process almost requires an extra-delight in the subject. It’s only such delight that sustains one through the labor. (If it took a sledgehammer to type every letter on a keyboard, I warrant there'd be fewer novels that take place in kitchens and living rooms.) Hopie’s choices were, as such, a little more varied, a little more idiosyncratic, a little more focused: A pigeon with its wings inverted downwards; two lacrosse players shouldering into one another; even the flow of a river around reeds and rocks has clearly been chosen for its design element – a forced collaboration of water and wood. Her decisions are all deliberately made, but fondly and personally and with the complete confidence of an interested, and interesting, observor.

Combine these basic features of her art – the generous surrender to the medium, the equally generous delight in and fascination with the subject – there’s not a lot of room left for preening or preciousness or any of the other things that, fragrant as they may seem at the moment of conception, wind up stinking in the long run (and no, the irony of the sentence is not lost). But it’s likely because of that – the presence of such a confident guide, the absence of any self-interest or self-consciousness – that Hopie’s prints and watercolors make for such pleasing company. I know to certain ears that may not sound like the nicest thing to say about a person’s Art – should Art not on some level displease, trouble, fester, etc. etc.? Maybe, but again it’s the quiet but powerful companionship her work provides that helps account for the fact that it holds up so well, witness the fact that pretty much everything hanging last weekend sold, which the more you think about it is kind of amazing. Art does age, after all, and nothing ages quite so quickly or hideously as a painting or a book or a song conceived to please the current arbiters of taste; most popular art becomes artifact in one spin of a wheel. That a forty-year-old print, attached to no great name or reputation, should find such instant appeal among of gang of strangers – and make no mistake, the buyers here were strangers to us all - speaks volumes, both about the work and its maker.

But to spare yourself any more of those volumes, the reader is invited to go see Hopie’s work for him or herself here. My final point, in context of this blog, dedicated to exploring and expanding the broader creative context in which I am trying to see my own efforts, is to express not just my renewed admiration for the work of a departed relative, but also just how comforting, how reaffirming and correcting I find it to be reminded of the legacy to which I was born and in which I was raised – as opposed, for instance, to the literary legacy I seem to having such trouble discerning. More so at this moment than ever, and at these crossroads, I do well to remember that, however high or low the writing takes me, I am in the end just another one of the Brookses, and I would have it no other way.

So thank you, Hopie, and thank you, Helena.

Next Post: Last Class of the Semester.

Previous Post.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

38. Nov 5, 2009

Another effort using turps and graphite (the quicker sketch is charcoal, as is the hair of the model in profile).
I'm told gesso will help.
Next Post: Hope Brooks Meryman (1931-1975)
Previous Post: a new medium

Friday, October 30, 2009

37. a new medium

A friend suggested I try turpentine and graphite, so last night I did. The first result is above – a little messy, and there are respects in which I think it’s clear I had no idea what I was doing, but I record it here because it will be fun, if I continue with the turps, to monitor progress or regress. And sometimes art is like apartment hunting: you get luckier your first time out than you ever will again.

But what a big fan I am of changing medium, of starting out at the beginning again. It’s one of the downsides of growing older, is you get fewer and fewer opportunities to be an idiot, and to experience the slow-release joy -- and the instruction -- that comes from practicing at something and improving. No matter what you do for a living, once you’ve settled on your brushes, you’ll eventually achieve the basic level of technical mastery that the fates and the muses have allotted you, and it becomes nearly impossible to gauge progress one way or another. You are who you are.

But change your medium – try screenplays, try fairy tales, try turps and graphite -- and you quickly rediscover the electric charge that comes from feeling lost and groping, but also the feeling that tomorrow when you return, you will be better.

My mother is a woodcut artist. Over the years and decades she has developed a very personal and particular technique that give her woodcuts a quality that, to be honest, you will not find anywhere else. About twelve years ago, she took up oil painting. She slung herself back to the beginning, and I’m sure it was a good thing for all the reasons mentioned. The unexpected benefit, however, was that when she started oil painting, her woodcuts took off. It was as if all the creativity and inspiration she had to put on hold just to acquaint herself with the basics of her new medium got funneled back into her native soil, the woodcuts, which just started exploding with life and imagination.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

35. pen, and therefore John Groth

These are from last week (Oct. 15, 2009). The paper had been left behind by someone in the studio. Very slick, and roughly 1' x 2'. I decided to try my hand with a pen, and therefore spent most of the evening thinking about an old family friend and artist, John Groth (1908 – 1988), who taught and mentored my aunt Hopie.

As John himself told it, the story goes that as a very young man, let’s say 20, he had managed his way into the office of the one of the editors of the city desk of some Chicago paper – I’m not sure which – in hopes of getting a job as a resident artist. This was back in the day way newspapers hired artists, not just for court proceedings, but street scenes, the crime beat, sports and the like. The editor must have been busy. He didn’t want to be bothered with this young punk with the portfolio, so just to get him out of his office, he said, “Go do a hundred drawings a day and get back to me.” John, in his innocence took the assignment seriously, went off and proceeded to draw a hundred drawings a day, every day.

Whether the story is true or not, it’s an excellent origin myth, it so well explains John’s mature style. As a younger man, there seems to have been a lot more Daumier to what he did. The figures were more solid and stolid, the lines more deliberate, the medium more often oil. But the later work is almost always in ink and watercolor, and always rendered in that distinctive style, a style which was every bit as dashing as John himself was. He was very handsome, with a jutting chin, pure white hair (when I knew him) cut to a page boy's length, a pencil thin mustache, fisherman’s cap, a vest, and a pipe. And he always had his pen in breast pocket, ready at any moment to whip out his sketch book and go. To be with him was to see him draw, and he was one of those artist who was fun to watch. His hand and wrist were a little like the ink-stem of a polygraph machine, but not at all mechanical. Maybe it was because of that editor in Chicago, maybe because that’s who he was, but drawing was itself a kind of sport for him, explosive, fast, reactive, and he chose his subject matter accordingly. An illustrator at heart (by which I mean no insult; I suspect I am too), he depicted a lot of the same things in his art as Hemingway depicted in his fiction: bullfights, war, cockfights, safari, the sporting life, all caught in motion and emotion. He was definitely a romantic. As much as he traveled for his work, he also often drew straight from the imagination. Any time he gave a gift or a note, he’d ad a sketch right there of a charging bull or an Indian on horseback, or himself, and that was fun to see - a grown-up pulling it right out of head. One didn’t see that often.

John also taught a lifedrawing course at the Arts Students League in New York. Outside of elementary school, it’s the only other drawing class I ever attended before the one I’m in now, and I probably only went to one or two sessions. I was young, and not all that comfortable in the space, but the lesson was still clear. John had long recognized me as a potential heir to the family business, but clearly expressed -- as I’d expect any good teacher of mine would likely express -- the desire to see me loosen up a little. Let it rip. Stop being so fucking precious with my lines.

Some years later, when I revealed to him that I was thinking about being a writer instead, I can remember his expression of disappointment. “Writing? Aw…” His face twisted as if someone had jammed his pen into his gut. “But writers…” He shook his head. I’m not sure he finished the sentence, but he didn’t have to. My understanding then is my understanding now:

Writers don’t really live.




Same model, same evening, and a pleasing contrast. The first and more exultant, drawn early in the evening in about a half a minute with vine charcoal. The sleepier pose was the last of the evening and took twenty minutes, with a (faint) gaphite pencil.





Previous Post: Fran Healy, Literary Critic.

27. Fran Healy, literary critic

I turn attention to the topmost drawing of the post, the one of the young woman sitting on the stool with her arms folded. A friend and I were looking through the series of these drawings a few weeks ago. When we came to this one, she blurted out, “Oh, I don’t like that one.”

It was an instinctive response, which I accepted as such, and appreciate, if only because it functions as a reminder of the viewer’s (or reader's) privilege to like or dislike your offering solely on the basis of whether they find the subject matter appealing. In this instance, based upon my knowledge of my companion and the speed of her response, I assume her aversion was to the model’s attitude – wary, distrustful, defensive, judgmental.
In my mind, of course, these are all the things that make the drawing a pretty good one. The legs are a little off, but as far as the upper half is concerned, the clarity and the nuance of the attitude being expressed is pretty well-rendered, from the posture right down to the eye. Yet I am bound to accept that it is precisely this, the evident content of my depiction, which caused my friend to react so negatively, and that she had every right to that opinion.

I’m always reminded of an exchange that took place between New York Mets announcer Fran Healy and Ralph Kiner during an apparently slow game about fifteen or twenty years ago. Maybe it was a rain delay, but they were talking about the movie The Natural, and Fran Healy was saying what a good swing Robert Redford had, especially for an actor. Kiner said, “Yeah, and you know, The Natural wasn’t just a movie. It was based on a book.” Healy, whose charm consists in his embrace of the fact that he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer – said, “Oh, really?” Kiner said, “Yeah, but you know in the book, the Robert Redford character doesn’t hit that home run in the end. He strikes out.” There was a long pause, at the end of which Healy finally said, “…Boy, I would hate that book.’

As a younger man, a younger writer, I think I’d have taken Fran Healy’s crit to be the purest extract of philistinism, that nothing could be more crude or brutish than basing one’s appreciation of a book on whether the hero hits a home run or strikes out in the end. As I have matured – or let’s just say aged – I’ve come round to seeing that this is completely legitimate response. Maybe not my own, but certainly not dismissable. One has to take responsibility for all of one’s choices, after all, including what happens at the end.

Be that as it may, I stand by the drawing.


Next Post: Fran Healy, Literary Critic.