Friday, October 16, 2015
A Tap on the Door of Perception
I felt bored for the past several weeks. If you remember the Lerner and Loewe song from Gigi, “It’s a Bore,” sung by Gaston and his Uncle Honore, you will understand how I felt.
Here are the first few stanzas:
H: Look at all the captivating fascinating things there are to do
G: Name two.
H: Look at the pleasures of the myriad of treasures we have got
G: Like what?
H: Look at Paris in the spring when each solitary thing is more beautiful than ever before! You can hear every tree almost saying, "Look at me!"
G: What color are the trees?
G: What color were they last year?
G: And next year?
G: It's a bore!
H: Don't you marvel at the power of the mighty Eiffel Tower knowing there it will remain evermore? Climbing up to the sky over 90 stories high.
G: How many stories?
G How many yesterday?
G: And tomorrow?
G: It's a bore!
I dragged around doing what I had to do, but mostly going through the motions. I had no ideas for a blog post, I had no enthusiasm for painting, and even teaching the traditions class at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute felt routine rather than innovative.
I blamed my malaise on the shorter fall days with the resultant decline of sunlight, on approaching my 75th birthday, on being burned out with painting, on having nothing left to say about art appreciation.
I rationalized that posting 79 essays on my blog since 2010 was a remarkable accomplishment. Maybe it was time to quit.
Still, I loved writing them, and I missed that.
I remembered how I used to see painting subjects everywhere I looked, and I worried I might never again get excited by a new visual idea. I also knew I did not want to grind out paintings I did not feel inspired to make.
I felt even more enervated after I visited Edward Loper, Jr., the 80-year-old son of my mentor, Edward L. Loper, Sr. There to retrieve some tomatoes he had grown in his garden, I looked at the abundance of paintings and pastel drawings he had produced since I last saw him. “I work day and night,” he told me. “When I wake up at 2 am, I go to the studio and start another picture.” He found everything around him worthy of his effort—the window to his backyard; the objects on his living room table; the photographs of friends and colleagues he used to paint their portraits.
Edward Loper, Sr., used to insist an artist could make a painting out of a pile of dirt if he knew what he was doing. However, I knew Loper, Sr. had dry spells similar to the one I was suffering through, and he went long periods without painting, filling up his time with teaching.
I did my share of complaining.
A few days after my visit, Eddie asked if I could stop by so he could take some photos of me for him to use as his subject for a portrait. He had me stand in his doorway so I caught the light, and he asked me to face left. Then Connie, his better (very patient) half, took several more with me looking directly at her as Eddie grumbled in the background he did not like that pose.
As it turned out, he started this picture using the photo Connie took:
In an email, Connie wrote, “he began on Sunday and has rarely left it . . . an artist possessed.”
I wanted to do something, anything, which might allow me to feel that way again.
I decided to send an email to my grandson asking if he would pose for me with his two cats. I knew he might not be willing to do so himself, because he did not like the last painting I did of him. But he loved his two cats, Ming and Mae, a brother and sister with feline exuberance. He immediately emailed back saying “sure.”
My husband and I arranged to come to his house to take the photos.
When we arrived, my son cautioned, “You’ve heard about herding cats, haven’t you?” I had, but I had no idea what that really meant. I soon found out.
The cats would not curl up in his lap, sit on his shoulder, or stay still for a second. We took many pictures, but they all had both cats leaping on or off my grandson, or lots of other arms and hands in the picture trying to keep them somewhere near him.
Finally, Josh stretched out on the floor, and Ming, the larger of the two cats, curled up next to him.
When we arrived home, and my husband started showing me the photos he had transferred from his camera to his computer, I watched them go by. I felt more discouraged than before. None of them appealed to me, until he showed me this one.
“STOP,” I shouted. That’s it! I could feel my heart race. I had an idea.
It came, not as a tap on the door of perception, but as a BIG BANG.
In that moment, I also knew what had been wrong with me.
Habit and routine had deadened me. It does that to all of us.
The only antidote is action.
Rollo May, in The Courage to Create, wrote that “Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and Camus and Sartre have proclaimed that courage is not the absence of despair; it is, rather, the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair.” (pp. 2-3)
And when an artist moves ahead, a vital element in the creative act is the strength of the encounter, an experience characterized by an intensity of awareness, a heightened consciousness. As May wrote, “Absorption, being caught up in, wholly involved…are used commonly to describe the state of the artist or scientist when creating….” (p. 38)
While we do not know why an idea emerges at a given time, we do know that when one occurs, it strikes us as true, as important, as valuable, even though we have no idea what it is exactly, and we have to, in my case, paint the picture to discover it.
Stravinsky said this best: “Step by step, link by link, it will be granted [the artist] to discover the work…. All creation presupposes at its origin a sort of appetite that is brought on by the foretaste of discovery. This foretaste of the creative act accompanies the intuitive grasp of an unknown entity already possessed but not yet intelligible, an entity that will not take definite shape except by the action of a constantly vigilant technique.” (Poetics of Music in the form of six lessons, pp. 51-52)
Stravinsky also said a composer “improvises aimlessly the way an animal grubs about. Both of them go grubbing about because they yield to a compulsion to seek things out…So we grub about in expectation of our pleasure, guided by our scent, and suddenly we stumble against an unknown obstacle. It gives us a jolt, a shock, and this shock fecundates our creative power.” (pp. 56-57)
I had been grubbing about.
Now I am painting my picture.
In the past few days, I wrote this post.
As I happily did both this week, I presumed Eddie, in the same few days, finished his portrait of me and completed several more paintings.
In the next post, after I finish my painting, I will discuss both Eddie’s painting and mine.
Sooner than later, I hope.