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.





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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.


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