Observation, memory, & art

Simon Watts has died. Probably you have not heard of him. His father, Arthur Watts, was a talented illustrator for the British magazine Punch, among other publications. My readers are unlikely to be familiar with him, either. His sister, Marjorie-Ann Watts, is an illustrator, novelist, and memoir-writer in the UK. Her books are not readily available in the USA, so my readers probably do not know of her, alas. Simon’s maternal grandmother was Amy Dawson-Scott, aka “Sappho,” poet, novelist, and British literary hostess who founded English PEN. If you have not heard of her, you may have heard of PEN International, a major writers’ organization.

Oh, such interesting relations and associations!

Simon, who turned 90 a week ago, needs an elegy–but I cannot write one, at least not yet. We have been friends for 35 years; and even though he hasn’t lived nearby, we will miss his presence in our lives because he corresponded well. He sent letters, and emails with memoir documents attached, and photos. He kept up with our children even into their adulthood. He called us. We visited. He told the best stories–always mirthful and full of twists. He wrote articles on sailing, boatbuilding, furniture-making, and sent little essay-type memories to his friends and family.

He hailed from England, emigrated to the US in the 50s, and loved Nova Scotia, San Francisco, and Portugal. He has family in the US, Britain, and Australia.

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I was scouting about the internet looking at his work and his family’s stories and came upon his father’s article on drawing in black and white, written in 1934 about a year before Arthur’s early death (he died in an airplane accident). This section struck me as so relevant to my own understanding about both sketching and writing–good writing, poetry, journalism–is also, foremost, about observation and memory.

Speaking of memory and observation, how much I wish that I had trained mine more. How I wish I had employed that excellent method of looking at an object, going into another room to draw it, returning to refresh my memory, and so on, until that drawing was completed without it and the object ever having met, as it were. What a training for an artist interested primarily in character, who sees for a minute a face which, if he cannot draw from memory, he will never draw at all!

I believe I am right in saying that, ages before such a thing as photography was even guessed at, this was the method by which Chinese artists were taught … So developed did their powers of observation and memory become by this training that by shutting their eyes, opening them for the fraction of a second, and shutting them again, they could keep in their minds the visual image of what they saw long enough to be able to transfer that visual image to paper. It was in this manner that they were enabled to draw insects and birds in flight, and it is an indubitable fact that, when the camera was invented and ‘instantaneous’ pictures were produced, it was proved by comparison that these artists’ memorisations were perfectly accurate.

Stacks Image 61

I tried that method myself, but, having no stern master to goad me on and, alas that I should have to say it, being constitutionally lazy, dropped it; for it is the most exhausting form of study that I know.

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Simon Watts, the son of this artist (a man he barely remembers), inherited somehow–though expressed in an entirely different way–the recognition that we ought to note carefully and recall the world around us, revel in our memories, and share our knowledge and wonder in whatever ways we can.

He saved historic wooden sailboats by carefully measuring them, building his own versions, and reproducing his designs for others to build.

In the photo below, my daughter, at age 14, happily sails the Atlantic off the coast of Nova Scotia in the boat that graces the cover of his plans for Building the Norwegian Pram.

 

alice-pram 2004

Such memories fall into the category of immeasurably valuable. Right now, this photograph takes the place of any elegy I could compose. Sail on in peace, Simon!

 

Resilience

A couple of poets whose blogs I am “touring” this year have mentioned resilience. Sometimes resilience is coupled with persistence; generally, the topic revolves around how to sustain one’s writing practice when all is not going well. When there are rejections, interruptions, failures…when the writer cannot seem to carve out time to write, when support for creative endeavors is lacking.

Kelli Russell Agodon just posted a response to Lori McNee’s 5 traits of successful artists. Sure enough, one of the five traits is resilience.

Here’s an excerpt.
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“Successful artists are resilient. They know that success does not happen overnight – it requires hard work. These artists understand that things don’t always work out the way they expect. When they make mistakes, they focus on solutions, not on regrets. They learn from experience and experiment to improve on any success they have.”

Agodon’s response is that “some of the best poets aren’t the ones who are the best, but they are the ones who won’t stop writing, who won’t give up. They don’t let a rejection, a NO, a missed award, an overlook, stop them.” She cites the example of a colleague who does not submit work: “the rejection part was too hard to handle. It’s a loss for the readers in the world when that happens.” And then she adds:

I have made huge mistakes as a poet, from sending my Visa bill in with a snailmail submission, to missing a deadline, to writing a terrible poem and thinking it was good. We all do it (okay, maybe not mailing in your Visa bill), but mistakes will be made, failures will happen, and so what.
Keep writing.”
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Which is resilience. I have counted myself lucky to possess the resilience trait, as it may be the thing that has kept me living with my tendency toward depression, kept me if not balanced at least…springy. If you have followed this blog for awhile, you may notice that most of the header photographs over the years have been grasses, wand-like branches, gently-bending blooms, eclipse-shadows of leaves, waterfalls. There is a reason for that: I am reminding myself to bend instead of break.
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Criticism is valuable. Mistakes can teach. Failures are not the end of everything good in the world, even if they feel that way in the first moments. Keeping on is all we can do, really. So I am signing off now to tend to my poems, my journal, my notes–and to the tall weeds in the meadow, swaying in wind that foretells a storm.

 

Museum musing

On a drizzly, quite autumnal day, I returned to one of my favorite places, the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Our main purpose this trip was to visit the American Craft galleries, where wood-turner and artist David Ellsworth’s work, including some collaborations with his wife, glass-bead artist Wendy Ellsworth, currently resides for a one-year exhibit. It’s not every day that I can enter a world-class museum and say, “I am friends with the artist who created this marvelous object!” Kudos to the Ellsworths and to the museum for recognizing the importance of David’s astonishing work.

photo-3

Crafted from a dense burl of wood, precisely bandsawn, these sculptures from Ellsworth’s “Line Ascending” series range from 2 to 5 feet in height and conjure possibilities from dinosaur horns to mountains to minarets.

I had not had a chance on previous visits to walk through the Anne d’Harnoncourt Sculpture Garden at the museum, so despite the drizzle, we followed the paths through the 1-acre urban park. The hardscaping is very nice, though by now a bit cliched, since it seems every city garden in the US uses New York’s (admittedly amazing) High Line as its model. The Anne d’Harnoncourt garden likewise utilizes native plants in the garden areas–a trend of which I approve. The views of Philadelphia, its fountains and the river, are nicely framed, and the park is laid out well for “rooms” to contain or display large sculpture. I am sorry to report that few of the sculptures resident at present are appealing, though. My spouse remarked that one of the Sol Lewitt pieces “looks like a barbecue grill platform.” In another setting, that might not have been so obvious (or so funny). Nonetheless, it was pleasant to wander the sculpture garden paths and muse on things aesthetic instead of thinking about the large stack of student essays awaiting my attention.

Evaluating freshman composition papers requires a different aesthetic altogether.

 

 

 

 

Art, story, story, art

Yesterday, I attended a reading by former US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan in a more intimate setting (a luncheon) than I’ve ever been privileged to hear her at in the past. An audience member asked her how she would define art. Alas that I don’t write quickly enough to have taken her words down verbatim, but she offered a lovely answer.

She said that if a person cannot really be happy without doing it, and cannot keep from needing to do it, and if it nourishes or gives back to that person in ways nothing else can–then that “it” is art, in her opinion.

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I suppose art also ought to speak to others, but I am not sure that is as necessary as art critics think it is.

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Speaking of critics, and of art, I was impressed with Hilary Mantel’s 1998 novel The Giant, O’Brien for reasons that made a few critics rather lukewarm about it. The author is best known for her amazing historical works, well-researched and full of believably human perspective. O’Brien is a departure in several respects although still historical fiction. I read this book as an ambiguous moral tale, a myth, a story about stories (and art) and a depiction of ways the Enlightenment created significant losses in the midst of its gains. So I was less bothered by the exaggeration of certain personalities or minor plot gaps. O’Brien, a storyteller of the most shamanistic/primitive sort, also possesses a modern (Enlightenment) intellect and an artist’s “intuition.” But he never achieves fame, or the goal of restoring a beloved pub–the place he learned his craft–and dies painfully and slowly, impoverished and nearly abandoned.

As O’Brien nears death, Mantel writes that there comes “a point in fatigue or pain when logic slowly crumbles from the world, where reason’s bricks sieve to crumb. Where content flits from language…and departs.” And her character, the giant–who embodies in his hugeness the epitome of mythical narrative, the kind that sustains us even in dire poverty–eventually comes to the conclusion that the poor among us lose all. Of the poor man, he muses:

Stories cannot save him. When human memory runs out, there is the memory of animals; behind that, the memory of the plants, and behind that the memory of rocks. But the wind and the sea wear the rocks away; and the cell-line runs to its limit, where meaning falls away from it, and it loses knowledge of its own nature. Unless we plead on our knees with history, we are done for, we are lost. We must step sideways, into that country where space plaits and knots, where time folds and twists: where the years pass in a day.

What within us plaits and knots and folds and twists but the brain itself? We pass along our knowledge and, more importantly, our stories. That is done from brain to brain through language and music and art, even as the individual brain comes to the end of its viability and vitality. We step sideways into another person’s brain, just as O’Brien’s listeners memorize his tales, his cadence, his figurative speech. So, in the end, O’Brien is wrong.

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I attended a funeral today at which the officiant encouraged us to keep the departed alive in our hearts and for the future by telling stories he had told or by relating stories about him to anyone who might listen. I know I have previously written about this idea in conjunction with readings and philosophers and art and literature. The more I encounter it, the truer it seems to me.

The bereaved spouse at this funeral is a person who is losing her own story through senile dementia, though she has some occasional awareness of her memory loss. Her ability to carry on her husband’s narrative is already deeply diminished or perhaps completely gone.

These are among our risks.

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These words brought to mind my long-time friends, the craft-artists David Ellsworth (turned and other wooden forms) and Wendy Ellsworth (beaded forms). This month, for the first time in their many years together, they have a joint exhibit in the gallery space at Jenkins Arboretum (Devon, PA). The photos below are snapshots Wendy took, and their individual work is best viewed in person or on their studio website. [Contact the artists for permissions, photos, information about workshops and talks.]

Wendy Ellsworth's seaforms, and a necklace

Wendy Ellsworth’s seaforms, and a necklace

Wendy's "Sunset" (with David's turned-wood frame/container)

Wendy’s “Sunset” (with David’s turned-wood frame/container)

David Ellsworth's "Emergence" series

David Ellsworth’s “Emergence” series

I have known Wendy and David for over 25 years, and I can testify that the work each of them does fits Kay Ryan’s description of art. They are artists, and their work nourishes both of them–and nourishes us, the beneficiaries, as well.

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For today, these are my stories.

www.ellworthstudios.com

Er – sur –

Mary Ruefle writes, in her book of “lectures,” Madness, Rack, & Honey: “I remember being so young I thought all artists were good, kind, loving, exceptionally interesting, and exemplary human beings.”

I was a child like that. It’s good to know there was at least one other. We grow up to know that such artists are far from common. But they do exist.

Each time I learned a “bad” thing about an artist, poet, or writer I loved, I felt a little deflated. Something was being taken away from my idea of the person who made such wonderful work.

Later, I rather empathized with Roland Barthes’ theorizing about the death of the author. Not because I was necessarily post-modern but because sometimes, I wanted the artist-as-person to be erased so that I could go back to loving the art-as-art. This was a juvenile way of thinking about both human beings and about art.

But: the lure of erasure…

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Ruefle muses about time, about art, literature, and the human being. Her assays to determine what endures among us often feel a bit cryptic or aphoristic at the first encounter. The wisdom in them, and the layeredness–and the awareness of what is “missing” in her texts–evolved in my own mind as I read her book, slowly.

She has used erasure as a means to expression and to beauty, as it happens. Examples of her erasure poems appear on The Poetry Foundation’s website here.

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The closing epigraph of Madness, Rack, & Honey (is it an epigraph if it falls at the end of the book?) is from Samuel Pepys’ Diary following the Great Fire “…an abundance of pieces of burnt papers were cast by the wind as far as Cranborne; and among others she took up one…which was a little bit of paper that had been printed, whereon there remained no more nor less than these words: “Time, it is done.”

Time.clock

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For Dave Bonta’s interpretation of erasure poems–based upon Pepys’ diary–see via negativa here.

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“Exhibit 13,” by Blue Man Group, follows an abundance of pieces of burnt papers cast by the wind, as well.