Monday, June 30, 2014

Benched Week 49: walled off

Quiet corners are hard to come by.  Finding a bit of public space that allows for one to sit and be still is not easy. There is a wonderful little garden in our town, hidden in behind brick walls, which is almost that.  It’s tucked away.  With an inviting stone bench.

I nearly didn’t make it here today – with looming projects and intermittent rain, I thought twice about it.  However, once I was on the bench, under the intricate Japanese cedars, bejeweled by rain droplets, I was glad I came.

This was the first time I had lingered here on my own.  My last visit was with my son’s wedding party for a photo shoot.  The time before, I had brought a class of young artists to sketch with charcoal. 

The walled space was very much a secret corner, but it was not a quiet one.  At 8:00 on a Monday morning, the roar of cars from the nearby intersection, augmented by the hiss of tires on wet pavement,was unavoidable.  It made me think about how public life is becoming more and more dominated by noise and images.  And how critical stillness and reflection are to finding an artistic vision.

Sitting, even with the noise, was a good exercise, as it always is on these benches.  It wasn’t until twenty minutes in that I noticed that the “legs” of the bench beneath me were actually carved squirrels!  I feel very much like a squirrel at times, fidgeting, restless, always looking for the next thing, moving distractedly from idea to idea.  An immovable squirrel (despite its oxymoronic description) is a good mental picture for the kind of focus I need.

Then again, in front of me is another visual piece of wisdom.

Walled windows.

Interesting: they gave up the view of the garden from inside the house so that the view from the garden might be more sheltered, more enclosed.   Not a bad thing to consider: for the sake of focus, what distractions should be walled off?  They might be good things, on the surface.  But even good things can be sidetracks.

Sometimes, focus is not just about what’s in front of you.  It’s about what’s no longer dancing in your periphery.  We only notice what’s inside our secluded places when the world outside is truly outside.

Just on the other side of the wall.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Benched Week 48: the funny thing about art

Visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art is no laughing matter.  Or at least, I didn’t think it would be as my wife and I made our way across Central Park on a gorgeously sunny day.

After all, isn’t art supposed to be serious, weighed down by intent and gravitas and insight?  I expected paintings so breathtaking in their approach and mastery that I’d stand slack-jawed before them.  And, indeed, there were such moments – in particular, seeing one of the most striking portraits by the Spanish painter Velasquez, who I studied as a semester-long project in college.

There was even a bench so solemn, I wasn’t permitted to take a sample sitting.

I had to settle for one with a view of an earnest artist in his studio.

But I was most surprised and delighted that time and again, I peeked behind the ponderous and found touches of the playful.  There was a serious sense of humor there, like the hint of a sardonic smile on a serious face.

Let me show you what I mean.

Let’s start with Degas.

In this famous pastel of ballerinas, have you ever wondered why there is a watering can?  In it, can you see the echo of the pose of the girl on the right?  That’s worth a chuckle.

Then there’s this delightful tribute to young love by Frans Hals.  Even the informal title – “Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart”—is suitably silly. With a name like that, he ought to be selling farm equipment in central PA.

Or Rembrandt’s Bellona in which he depicts the Roman goddess of war as a rather plain woman.  How he must have loved the befuddled looks he received for this.

The little-known Lilly Martin Spencer took a stab at gender roles with her Young Husband: First Marketing, in which a newly-married man attempts to bring home groceries for the first time.  Says the guy passing: "Man-up, dude!"

And finally, the one that made me actually laugh out loud – something not at all keeping with the hushed reverence of the place -- The True American, by Enoch Wood Perry.  Every denizen of this porch manages to hide his face.  Even the dog.

Why does this resonate with me?  Recently I was in a car with a couple of colleagues who agreed that I do “cute” well.  Jokingly miffed, I said, “Wait -- I can be edgy!”  They laughed and said I couldn’t do edgy if I tried.  In fact, I have tried.  People still thought the art was rather sweet.

But my day at the Met reminded me that weightiness in art isn’t the same thing as heaviness. Delight is no shallow emotion. The laughter of a young child and his mother is as significant as any dark-hued depiction of a violent Greek myth. And perhaps it’s even harder to depict.

The next morning, on the Today show, the artist Jeff Koons – who has a supremely silly living sculpture currently installed in Rockefeller Center – said, “I don’t think art should intimidate people.”

At least for my work, I agree.  Wherever the opposite of intimidating is: that’s where I create.  And I’m okay about that.  Even in art, it seems that laughing matters, after all.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Benched Week 47: rhythm

There’s a simple pace to the year in a college town.  Inhale in September: students, traffic, activity, business, noise.  Exhale in May: stillness, quiet, and tranquility as the students go home.  Being married (33 years today!) to a middle-school teacher, I know the divided year well.  There’s the grind, then the unwind.

But there’s more than one way to slice a calendar.  I became freshly aware of that as I sat on a bench by the college library.

All around me were reminders of different rhythms.  The sounds: the songs of migratory birds, here for the summer; the rumble of brakes on 18-wheelers making regular north-south runs on Route 15; the peal of the bells in the chapel tower marking the quarter hour.

And the sights: the warm-weather flowers in the planter in front of me…

… contrasted to the permanent evergreens…

… and in the distance, the penitentiary where the counting of hours, days, weeks and years has a very different weight -- and wait.

My life is now divided into a two-beat syncopation of leaving and staying.  There’s a bit of the interplay of one of M. C. Escher’s tessellations at work: am I a studio artist who travels or a traveling artist who gets to go home sometimes?

But that’s too simple a division of life, just as this morning’s observations remind me. Overlaid on that upbeat-downbeat tempo are many smaller bits of time –- moments in which I try to create my own art.  And therein lies the dilemma.  How do I create in small windows of opportunity?

Here are two recent examples:

I began this nearly a month ago.  Despite my snippets of effort, it’s still unfinished.

This was completed in about an hour.

As I get older, I find I have less patience for the slower pieces.  I lose interest.  Is there such a thing as Late-Onset ADD?  If so, I may have it.  Though I admire artists who can devote months to exacting painting, I know I can’t.

So the trick – for all of us, I think – is to try to maximize the moments we have without being held hostage by them.  In the end, like a great jazz composition or a Bach fugue, there are layers of rhythms in our lives.  Sometimes we capitalize on the minutes available.  And sometimes, we let those minutes flow into seasons like notes in a larger composition. 

Finding the right tempo – that’s a good way to stay upbeat about my art.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Benched Week 46: flashy photography

My outing with my daughter had three objectives: find a 500-year-old hemlock, play with the camera and sit on a bench together.  We had hoped to find all three in Alan Seeger Natural Area, hidden in the mountains of central Pennsylvania.

It took us much longer than we expected to get there, when the collective wisdom of Google maps, our GPS and two Amish women selling strawberries failed us.  But my phone patiently guided us to the correct dark, secluded patch of woods.  There we found plenty of mighty, ancient trees – though not the half-millennial one promised in the guidebook.

Nor did we find a bench.  That was supplied by Penn State, as we later tucked into two bowls of Creamery ice cream and reviewed the photos that we took.

I had shown Grace about how setting could change the depth of field, and how to focus on an object, but move it off-center without losing focus.  She, in turn, had found delightful subjects – not the impressive trees above, but a variety of mosses beside the trail.

This one she said looked like a mouse.  I suggested we name it Mickey Moss.

She named this one Summer Frost.

When I asked her what she would choose to photograph if she could do a series on one subject, she said, “Plants.”  Interesting, I thought, not flowers.  I asked her why.  “Because plants have character, I guess,” she answered.

We then talked about how much of art is about giving others a new way to see, turning the ordinary into something extraordinary.  That’s easy to do, I pointed out, when the subject is flashy, like a flower or a waterfall.  It’s trickier when the subject might normally feel mundane. Like moss.  That’s when one’s artistic skill and eye come into play.

It’s not unlike people, I added.  Flashy people get all the attention.  But the more profound perspectives often come from those who quietly get overlooked, who take time to get to know.

As if to underline a dramatic subject, we came to the last photos I had taken.  As I had been making my way toward the car in the park, Grace had called out to me. I turned to find a butterfly perched on the end of her finger! It seemed almost magical.  What was the point of my lesson if sensational subjects were going to flutter up and beg to be photographed?

But between spoonfuls of strawberry ice cream, she explained how she had carefully approached the butterfly, sliding her finger up to it on the ground until it crawled onto it. This was no magic.  It was just patient, watchful determination.

Which is why she is quite likely to become a fine photographer.  Or an artist.  And why she already has become a tried and true friend to so many.