Thursday, June 21, 2012

Conflict of Interest

So, I've been practicing being dead, as far as Facebook is concerned, and actually have time to do something other than read another list of steps to being unbearably happy, in under fifteen minutes, guaranteed (the kitten is free), I've been thinking about, oh, maybe a million other things. 

Here's one of the million things.  Twelve days ago, I was part of a public poetry reading, put together by Mr. Forest F. White, as a promotion for his new book of poetry, and also to benefit the Combat Paper project, in which we have both become involved within the last few months.  The reading was on a Saturday afternoon, in a big room on the fourth floor of the Newark Public Library.  I brought, for my portion of the afternoon, a poem I wrote as a kind of accompaniment to one of my favorite pieces of my own sculpture (talk about self-referential), a haiku I still wasn't sure about, and, actually, a slightly re-written post from this very blogue itself.  The one about Wednesday. 

Having arrived a bit early, and taking a place in the front row, I didn't realize, until I stood up to read, that the room was actually almost half full -- some were folks I knew, but most weren't.  And here I was, at a benefit for a veteran-based organization, about to read a personal essay that featured, not digi-camo uniforms, MRE's and night raids, but pink angel-food cake and Marie Antoinette.  There being, however, nothing for it, I plunged ahead.  As I read, I could tell that the audience was really listening -- there was even a pause and a kind of gasp at just the right place in the narrative.  It was quite gratifying.

Of course, as I've mentioned before, praise makes me nervous, and I tend to seek ways to self-destruct, assuaging the crippling anxiety that comes with having done something that garners public approval.  I listened politely, when the reading was over, as two or three listeners enthused about their favorite parts of the essay.  No criticisms about the lack of military precision, or weapons inspections.  Surely that would come later, I decided.

This wave of approval continued, I'm afraid to say, the next day, when I went out to Branchburg, to do my weekly deconstruction of donated uniforms, for the Combat Paper project.  David Keefe, one of the founders of this chapter, even suggested that I think about printing this piece, on Combat Paper.  I protested -- what does pink frosting and an October beheading have to do with the Iraq and Afghan conflicts?  He laughed and said it didn't make any difference.  Maybe we could do a small edition, he said -- perhaps five copies, tops.  I could even thrown in some pink fabric, since the color is featured in the work.  (Which suggestion both intrigues and troubles me) (The pink triangle thing, don't you know)

So, I'm trying to decide whether I'm thrilled with the prospect of this project -- which I'm sure will be far more labor-intensive than I could ever expect -- or hoping it will be allowed to die a discreet, quiet death, in a corner by the kerosene and used tarletan.  But I've been drawing.  I've made a list of what I think would make four effective plates for this book; first, I want a dragon, the symbol of St. Margaret, patron of childbirth.  I've seen a reproduction of an early Northern Renaissance painting, featuring a woman, and at her feet, a little green-headed dragon, that I've decided was probably a mocking portrait of the nasty, annoying pet doted on by the artist's girl friend.  I haven't been able to find that painting online -- but my memory, though unspecific, is still reliable:  when I went to see the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Met, there was, printed on silk for one of his jackets, the very twisted crucifixion I'd been looking.  As for the dragon, I've gone ahead and made two versions.  One is too small to be converted to a lino-cut (if that's what I'll be doing); the second one, done last night, seems more promising, but would still probably mean at least two week's worth of careful carving.  So, I have a train to catch or something?

The other illustrations: a caduceus, instead of a 1957 Mercury, because I hate drawing cars; a reproduction of Jean Louis David's sketch of Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine; and perhaps an adaptation of an illustration from a favorite childhood book, with dancing marionettes in 18th-century dress.  Or maybe I can find out which of the innumerable saints is the patron of puppeteers, and use that instead.

All of this by way of a very indirect introduction to the topic I really want to address here -- which topic being: The Moral Underpinnings, If Any, of Creativity and The Artist's Calling.  (Now I may take a break to put in the air conditioner -- I never did like a direct line between two points)

Ah, incipient coolness.  I wonder who's the patron saint of air conditioning. 

Well, it goes something like this.  I had lunch this week with a wonderful young painter named Frank O'Leary.  I saw and was shocked by his large painting in what I suspect will have been the last ever juried Essex Exposed exhibit, at the Pierro Gallery in South Orange.  Frank had submitted a large self-portrait that showed a riveting blend of painterly sureness and spontaneity.  I would have understood if he'd won one of the juror's awards.  

Anyway, now Frank has built his studio, and is getting ready to begin a new series of works, he says.  I mostly see him in his job as manager for Coda, a restaurant in Maplewood when John and I like to go for a quiet Sunday evening meal.  Frank works in the restaurant three days a week.  He has recently graduated with an art degree -- I don't know whether it's a BA or MFA.

I suggested a late-morning coffee to Frank, because I like his work so much, and I also sense a seriousness in him that might make it less uncomfortable for me, a man easily old enough to be his father, to reveal the struggles I'm still having with some very basic issues about making art.   Mostly, I wanted to know what he thought -- is there, after all, some kind of spiritual component to creativity,  obliging those who bear it, to use it?

Now, what I seem to know about my own vein of creativity is this: I must do... something or other, or I'll really get sick.  This is not a joke.  I've tried, often in the past -- mostly when I was in the military, or while I was in college -- to stop drawing and painting, for one reason or another.  To make less of a mess in my room in the Air Force, and be less at risk, during surprise inspections, I was told.  To focus more on the acting I was doing at Penn State, it was suggested.  I would invariably develop some nervous tic or stomach pains, that stopped as soon as I allowed myself access to paper and something with which to make a mark.  Sculpture, now, seems to work in much the same way, only bigger, in three dimensions, and exponentially harder to store.

Frank said that, when it came time for him to make a choice, regarding school, there was no question of what he would pursue -- he wanted to be an artist.  His parents were laudably supportive, as long as he was still taking classes.  When graduation came and went, they began, as is inevitable I suppose, to worry about... what comes next?  How do you... make a living, now that you've got that art degree?  (These days, would it make that much difference, if it were a degree in accounting?  Maybe only marginally)

I also had a very early focus, or insight, about the idea of my being an artist -- even though, at the time, I really didn't know what that meant.  One particular childhood event stands out, in this regard.

My principal artistic expression, when I was seven, was filling up coloring books I would buy with my stained allowance every Saturday.  Most of the books were taken from the latest Disney cartoon feature -- Lady and the Tramp had just come out, I saw Alice in Wonderland and loved the talking flowers, and my father and another man took me to see Peter Pan.  I would lavish endless effort on these pictures -- I think I bought the Lady and the Tramp book more than once, I so loved coloring in the round gold tag that hung from her turquoise dog collar.

I also had drawing assignments in school -- I've talked about Miss Winkler and the Life Magazine illustrations she brought in, for us to look at and use as examples for our own work.  I was intrigued by the deep-sea creatures, living down where there's no natural light, gleaming with their own ghostly phosphorescence.  The grim hatchet fish fascinated me, with their huge jaws full of nasty sharp teeth.  I recall a large undersea picture I worked on for three weeks in school; when I brought it home, my mother put it in the front hall closet, where it ended up on the floor, under the boots.

But now, The Event.  One afternoon my mother and I were visiting a neighbor.  We were sitting in her kitchen.  There was a red-and-white checked cloth on the table, and a large bird cage, with either a canary in it, stood nearby.  The grown-ups talked about what they talk about.  I was looking very closely at both the table cloth and the bird in its cage.  Looking very, very closely.  And then, it came to me, like a little inner sunrise -- in the real world, in real life, there aren't black lines around everything!  I can still vaguely recall the surge of excitement that must have risen up, when this thought formed in my head.

Of course, everybody knows this, I suppose -- but my point, in telling this little story to Frank, was that it's not the sort of thing a seven-year-old usually thinks about, in such deliberate terms.  To me, it points to an innate focus on the visual, a different level of intellectual focus, and a prefiguring of a life spent pursuing artistic interests.  But, did it bring with it a moral imperative?    

Much later, and many hundreds of miles away, I would spend hours up in the attic, where I slept, writing the word 'Artist' over and over again in one of my notebooks.  I would also write the names of famous artists, like Leonardo and Michelangelo, as though these names had an incantatory power that would seep through the white paper, and infect me with some wondrous artistic malady.  I never wrote my own name.  
At the time, I'd never met any practicing artists -- and this at a time when, say, Andy Warhol was still drawing shoes for newspaper ads, and such options were still viable.  The only exposure I'd had to 'real art' was during our Art Class field trips to Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum.  I used to get almost sick with excitement, just seeing the skyline open up as we got near Oakland.  And by far, the central experience of my art life to that point was seeing one of the earliest of the 'traveling blockbuster' exhibits -- a great collection of Vincent van Gogh's works.  I might as well have been hooked up to a car battery, I was so jolted by the raw power of these paintings, in person.  (Don't tell, but as these were the days before laser sensors, I took advantage of distracted guards on more than one occasion, and actually touched one or two pictures -- expecting, I think, that the paint would still be moist and pliant, it looked so alive and squirmy on the canvas.

van Gogh as an example.  Terrible.  I immediately entered my own, seemingly obligatory 'van Gogh   
period', working on small canvas-covered boards, with paints I bought, much to my parents' disapproval, at the art store right at the bus station in downtown McKeesport.  I dimly recall one particular city scape, a view up the alley behind our house, of some of the neighboring buildings.  As I worked, there seemed to be an urgent expressivity to this row of houses -- one squeezed between the others, and seemingly trying to make more room for itself.  I was so unnerved by what I then thought was work that was 'too good', that I stopped.

And, now that I think about it, I've been making and exhibiting artworks -- mostly drawings and paintings, with glass-centered sculpture coming later -- for almost fifty years.  How dogged.  How... faithful, if we're talking about something spiritual? 

And maybe it was just this doggedness that led me, in my talk with Frank, to wonder aloud about the usefulness of... still working?  It fills me with shame -- almost as though I've sneaked up behind my own back, during the commission of some obscene act -- to discover that I've been operating under the assumption that, eventually, there would be some tangible reward -- some resonance, some stature -- not world fame (those places are always already taken) -- some sense that, for viewers, this hasn't all been a waste of time.  I think I've always secretly hoped -- perhaps have even assumed -- that art would be my equivalent of basketball (have I said this before?), lifting me up from my unpromising surroundings and depositing me in a better place.

(When I was still teaching, at the art school in Philadelphia, I tried to put together a work book for creative folks -- a set of exercises and questions and suggestions and challenges that would, one way or another, keep that need to make things alive and well-nourished.  I thought a great deal about 'strategies', expecting that few if any of these young people would, after walking across the stage in their caps and gowns, find themselves in their own studios, doing their own work and earning a living from it.  As recently as two weeks ago, the idea of such a book resurfaced, as a matter of fact.  I wonder where I've left all my notes)

Frank is certain that this making of paintings is what he needs to be doing, at this point in his life.  And, for him, I couldn't agree more.  I mused about a TV special on the life of Joan Miro.  We were in the artist's studio, a converted horse barn.  In one of the stalls was a row of large canvases, filling the width of the opening.  There was just enough room for Miro to slip his hand in, flip through, and pull out the canvas he wanted for the day.  "This one," he said, placing it on the easel, "I've been working on for twenty years."  Frank thought that was pretty neat.

And when I first saw it, I thought it was pretty neat too.  Now, though, I'm not so sure.  While it's certainly possible, just on genetic terms, that I might survive, physically at least, for another twenty years, I have to admit (confess?) that the thought of making more and more ultimately unnecessary work fills me with shame and despair.  My efforts, to supply myself with one of those strategies I was certain I could cook up for my students, turn out cold and fruitless.  And I'm not looking for bill-board-level, solo show at the Louvre strategies.  I'm talking reasonable, middle-class, with dental, strategy.

Maybe I should have been more specific, all those years ago.  I have a former teaching colleague who openly and vociferously proclaims a personal goal of being 'a famous artist', and is well on the way to achieving this.  But when I wrote 'Artist', over and over again, in my notebook, in that attic dormer looking out over the burning night skies of McKeesport, I truly did not know at all what it meant, and I'm not sure I have that much greater grasp of the enterprise today.  And that spiritual or moral component of the enterprise -- does it have a shelf-life?  Is there a sell-by date on 'a calling'?  Because at this point in my life, continuing the effort of trying to figure it out, while apparently repeating the same mistakes, seems as silly as if I were to begin serious training as a gymnast, or an airline pilot.  I have the feeling that, in terms of this life-long, perhaps pointless struggle, all I may ultimately be able to count on, is having provided, for anyone who might be paying attention, a Grade A, Solid Sterling... bad example.       

©    2012           Walter Zimmerman

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