Abstraction as autobiography


Jan 22nd 2012

“…Painter Mary Heilmann suggests that each of her abstract paintings can be seen as an autobiographical marker.” (Terry R. Meyers, “Introduction,” Painting, 15)

This resonates. My paintings reflect my exchange with the world at any given moment. As does all autobiography, I suppose. I struggled over that word exchange, not sure how in language to represent the dynamic of inner and outer. Even those words fail me. This is the place where the road of language ends for me. How to represent the lived experience of being in the world and being of the world at the same time? I have read that we can never be sure when we use words to represent the world that we achieve perfect communication, because what each of us understands is constructed in our brains. The conventions work in most cases—baby, table, banana. We have general agreement about these things. Color is a little more confusing, we’re told; some of us are “colorblind” and others see more colors than most of us. My son-in-law paints lovely representational watercolors. They are not photographic, though he often paints from photographs that he has taken. They are loose and evocative representations of the world that he has seen. I have never thought to ask him what he hopes to communicate through them. I just enjoy their beauty and watch the evident pleasure he takes in working on them. Would he say that they are about him? That they are bits of autobiography? They certainly do record a fraction of his interaction with the world.

I know that we experience the world differently, he and I. But I have lost the thread. Why do I paint? Because it gives me pleasure, when I allow myself to do it, to break through the cage of my thoughts and judgments and just do it. Maybe that is why, because it gives me the opportunity to practice just being. And more. It allows me to practice the integration of being and doing, something that should be fundamental, the fundamental, component of our birthright, something that many of us lose on our way to growing up. For me painting becomes an act of recovery. I know that everything I experience goes into the work even though it is not recognizable on the canvas, and I am fairly certain that this process does not employ language as a tool. Painting gives visual representation to the way the world works on me. The way it flows through me, using the channels of my senses, goes deep into the body for processing, and reemerges through color and motion. Even so, I do not know what the images say to others, or for the most part to myself. At least I cannot usually tell any of us with words.

Returning from hiatus


Jan 15th 2012


Since I last wrote my mother slipped and cracked her pelvis and the doctors discovered she had advanced ovarian cancer. She only lived for three months after that, months that bore many challenges and some surprising sweetness. Since her death we have been swamped by the need to dismantle and move the material contents of her life. Over the same months I have entered the final year of my long sojourn in the academy. Only six months to go. I don’t feel ready to write about the impact of my mother’s death, but recently, I was back at Pelican House; at the beach where I wrote my previous post last May and realized that I would like to write again and to share a few of my thoughts. The following is a piece that I rediscovered and worked on there. I am back to thinking about art, language and knowing:


Groping experimentation: trying to learn that which cannot be conveyed in language. Even when part of the curriculum is contained in books it still needs to go down into the furnace for processing. My painting teacher is trying to teach me about seeing. I am trying to learn. That is why the paintings must go up on the walls so that I can look at them every day and try to grasp what they have to tell me. This is a slow, unpredictable, and often frustrating process. I can look for days without knowing any better what a painting needs. What I have learned is that it can’t be forced. This lesson rests on much experience. I think, “Oh, last time it helped to add a bit of red in the corner, or black lines or circles, so let’s try that now.” I have learned that it is helpful to have these tools in my repertoire, to notice and remember the impact that they can have in an image, but unless the image has requested them they are not likely to move it where it wants to go. When no messages come, though, at least I am beginning to have a few things to try, a growing body of gestures and techniques. And I have learned that no mistakes are fatal, one of the wonderful gifts of acrylics.

When the messages do come, they are very quiet. They are easy to miss. I’m sure I have already missed a lifetime’s worth, but I am hoping that the more I learn to pay attention, the more I learn to respond, the louder and more assertive they will become. They tend to arrive like a faint pulse of air in the body, as if someone has nudged me and then disappeared. I haven’t yet learned what to do with them unless they transmutate into language, which often happens in the middle of the night or in the dreamy half-life of early morning. I am learning to write them down. But I also wonder about my dependence on language. Is it possible for me to hear and act on these messages without having to wait for them speak to me in the language that dominates my waking life, the language that many scholars tout as the hallmark of our humanity? An artist friend asks “what happens if the words never come?” I hesitate. It would be ok, I say tentatively. But when they do come – words that help me to understand the image I have created – I feel a deep relaxation, the release of a tension that I did not even feel.

Filling the Well


May 13th 2011

This morning I sit in a bedroom overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The window is open. All week the constant and ever-changing sounds of the surf have been with me. I am at Pelican House, a silent retreat house owned by the Episcopal church of eastern North Carolina. With eight other women writers, I am here to fill the well. We keep silence during the day as we write in our rooms or wander through the live oaks and sand, or sleep. In the evening we gather and listen to each other read. Life has slowed. We are filling the well. It feels luxurious; I suppose it is luxurious.

Our meals are provided. No money changes hands, since we took care of that before coming. We feel outside commerce for the moment, an illusion—useful or harmful I am not sure. I first came across this phrase, filling the well, a few years ago when I sheepishly told a friend about my activities during a recent solitary evening. Here is that story:

The Sunday paper mentioned that Runrig (a Scottish band I had learned about from my daughter) had a new CD out that week. It caught my eye so I went to I-tunes, several times, sampling their music without buying. The next day I bought a few songs and loaded them into my current playlist. That evening Jim worked late and I felt restless, at loose ends. I watched an episode of Without a Trace and then started a CSI but noticed that I wasn’t really interested. So I checked to see what movies we had in the house and ended up watching the first hour of A Room With a View, one of my all-time favorites. For the first time I saw that it is in part about misunderstanding what it means to grow up; more about this in a minute. My interest in the movie waned so I put my ten Runrig songs on shuffle, knowing I wanted more – I wanted an extravagance, an abundance. For some incomprehensible reason the sounds created by this particular Scottish band was what my soul wanted right now. And that it was somehow connected to my interest in seeing The Wind that Shakes the Barley, a film about the struggle for Irish independence. I never fully understood that link, two segments of the British Isles at one time overrun by the English, two places where my ancestors came from. The next morning, after yet another foray into I-tunes, I had 28 songs, which seemed a good number. The night before, as I played those first ten songs over and over, I felt the energy starting to flow in my body; until that moment I hadn’t noticed that it had stopped. In “Maymorning” the singer repeats the phrase “I’m alive again.” “I’m alive again.” Here’s the connection to growing up. When I was an adolescent, even into my twenties, I used to be overcome by these obsessions—with an actor, a band, a film, an author. I’d go back to the same movie three or four times in the same run, carefully keeping my return a secret, ashamed of my wasteful, frivolous, unseemly enthusiasm. And then I grew out of it; like Lucy in A Room With a View, I took hold of myself and dismissed these old obsessions as immature and childish, inadvertently starving myself of the food that only they could provide. When I confessed my Runrig obsession to my friend Jane, a pianist who grew up knowing herself as an artist, she said “oh that’s art, routine, normal, that kind of obsession. That’s what artists do.” She had known all along that it’s a thread you follow until it plays out and leaves you with its gift, which can’t be approached through reason. It occurs to me that maybe these dreamy obsessions are, in fact, meant to be private, or at least that it’s not a problem if they are. They may be my personal liturgy. I’ve come to believe that they can provide the energy I need to engage with everything else that matters in my life. And, before I learned this, I had been stopping the flow right at the source out of a misguided effort to grow up.

Last May, as soon as the semester ended I fell into Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a wonderfully meaty novel that tells the familiar story of Henry VIII’s intrigues and appetites through the eyes of his counselor Thomas Cromwell. I read the 600 page book in two delicious days, following it in quick succession with three other novels set during the same time period. None were quite as commanding as Wolf Hall, but together they provided a blissful interlude of conspiracy and romance. I started on a fifth book and after forty pages realized I was done. Whatever needed to happen through these books was finished and I could now get on with the work of the summer. My well, for the time being at least, was full.

A few words about method


May 10th 2011

“I wonder what happens if I do this?” I start with random experimentation, and then something catches the attention of discursive mind and it starts to frame the bare bones of a story, starts to guide the process, but still without a lot of what I learned to call “thinking.” It feels like there is a delicate balance between action and thought, between the pulse of energy and idea. I hear the word composition, but not having had formal art training, I’m not sure I know what this is, so I imagine that it is like argument in academic writing,, that it provides the energy that moves the piece along and allows for communication, and that somehow my groping method sometimes gets me to composition. I do believe that this energy, when it is present, allows me to communicate, or allows life to communicate through me? I do not feel in charge of the process. We, our bodies, are just on loan from life? Life is the purposeful force? What the poem wants, what the image wants, what the thesis wants – perhaps these are just ways of saying pay attention to what life wants. Meditation, journal writing, image making are all practices designed to tune into what life wants of this bundle of cells and processes called me.

Life chooses each of us and dances with the concrete circumstances of our existence – parents, location, ethnicity, class, time. Our lives unfold at the moving intersection of these two forces. This is not abstraction, this is experiential. And yet, with these abstracted words, I am guessing, groping. I wonder what happens if I say this.

Life chooses us. Our job is to pay attention. Life tells us what to say, if we attend well enough, if we are attuned. Life is writing, sometimes painting. I am trying to learn to trust it.



Mar 29th 2011

Titles are fraught. An apt one can induce ripples of anticipation and association, a bad one can irritate or mislead, while a mediocre one slides by mostly undetected. I have been fretting over titles ever since I was in college, the last touch on every term paper before I released it to my professor. I think I mostly get them “wrong” when assigning titles to my paintings — the titles seem to limit or define the paintings in ways I did not intend — but I just can’t stand the pain that lingers in my belly until I’ve attached one to a painting that’s about to makes its way into the world. Maybe I need more patience.

As I write I realize that the impact of a title may also depend on timing. When attached to a completed work it feels like closing a door, like accepting that the flow of history has stopped at least in this small instance, and you (audacious) can put a label on it. On the other hand, for this blog I had to come up with a title at the beginning of the journey, a title that signals my intention, that to some degree will actually create that intention.

And, already I think I’ve got it wrong. At least partly. Speaking? I’m not going to write about speaking except metaphorically, speaking as a stand-in for voice, which appears both in writing and in paint. So maybe it will do. A poetry teacher once told me that lists should have no more than three items, unless they are going to gobble up the whole poem. So I will follow her advice and not yield to the temptation to clarify by adding to the subtitle — writing, painting. What else might nudge its way in?

And Abstraction? What kind of title is that? Right after I uploaded my first post, I did something I tell my students to never do. I looked up the word in a dictionary. Actually, I don’t tell them not to do that, but I do tell them not to put the dictionary definition anywhere in their senior theses, not anywhere where I can smell it out. But that’s just what I’m going to do here. Abstraction: “the act of considering something as a general quality or characteristic, apart from concrete qualities, specific objects, or actual instances.” Yes. I am prone to this, but I will try to mitigate that tendency here; I will try to remember that it is helpful to tell stories. Abstraction: “an impractical idea; something visionary and unrealistic.” Absolutely. I am prone to this. Many years ago on a late evening drive from Durham to Asheville, my husband and I were arguing about some aspect of social policy, our eight year old daughter sleeping in the back. Or so I thought. But in the middle of the argument her head loomed over the seat. She looked straight at me and said “Ma. You live in la la land.” She had my number even then. Abstraction: “absent-mindedness; inattention; mental absorption.” Check. There are other aspects of the definition that don’t fit quite so well: “the act of taking away or separating; withdrawal;” and “secret removal, especially theft.” I can’t yet see their connection to this project. We’ll see what happens with them.

And then, of course, there are the paintings.

(Definition from dictionary.com

Beginning to Speak


Mar 28th 2011

I teach writing. Or perhaps, more accurately, over the years I have learned enough about how to translate a vague idea or intention into a sometimes persuasive and sometimes elegant piece of prose that I can be helpful to others who have something they want to write. I did not set out to do this; I just followed my nose and it came. Somewhere I read that our brains are naturally attracted to certain subjects and processes, and if we pay attention to these particular things they grow in us. My husband has a knack for finding the elusive state shell of North Carolina, the Scotch Bonnet, on the sands of Ocracoke Island. He meanders along the beach and they come to him; our daughter the marine ecologist says that he has a search image for the Scotch Bonnet in his brain. I seem to have a search image for writing. The irony, however, is that I haven’t done much writing myself. “Those who can do; those who can’t teach.” I wrote a dissertation, a number of poems, recommendation letters, a journal — I write in a journal — but that’s it. I teach writing, but I don’t write. This makes me uncomfortable, hence this blog.

I am embarking on this project with only the vaguest of intentions. The idea came in the middle of the night and persisted for several days so here I am. I think it will become a place to play with ideas that have been pestering me for the last few years, ideas about how we know and communicate, about the line between language and other forms of expression. About art, creating, being. Abstraction. This has deterred me from writing in the past; I am drawn to big ideas and abstraction. Embarrassing. But that seems to be where this brain (this mind?) wants to go. My friend David the other day said that abstraction is a deeply embodied art form; actually I think he said sensory, that abstraction is not stuck in cognition but is rather a dance with the senses. He was recounting a recent argument. Ah, I thought. That’s much better. Perhaps I can finally own up to my fascination with abstraction.