Category Archives: humility

Who’s In Charge Here?

"Interior With Cubist Chair," by Susan Chertkow

There has been much debate lately in the advanced painting class I teach at the Art Center, Highland Park, over whether or not an artist should explain “what she meant” when she created a work of art.  Stephanie looked at Susan’s series of paintings and asked her, “What were you thinking about?  What does this mean to you?”  Susan replied, “It doesn’t matter what it means to me, what matters is what it means to you, to the viewer.”  Stephanie made the case that it is interesting to know what the artist’s intention or story is.

I weighed in to say that, as the creator of a work, I don’t feel that my version of what it “means” is any more significant than anyone else’s.  In fact, once I finish a painting, what it means for me usually changes.  I’ve been painting long enough to have people show me works they bought from me decades ago, and not only do I not remember what I was thinking when I made it, occasionally I don’t exactly remember the piece!  (This is a rather disorienting feeling, since I remember selling it to them, and I can easily recognize my style, as familiar as looking at the shape of my own fingers.)

Serena Kovalosky, in her blog “365 Days Of Everything I Love About Being An Artist,” addressed the idea of interpreting art by saying:  “I’m not particularly attached to my translation of a piece and I find it fascinating to learn how my work affects others.  I’ll offer my version, discuss my influences as I was creating it, and I’ll gladly share the technicals.  But what people will remember most is how my work made them feel.”

I go a little further than Serena.  Not only do I enjoy hearing what other people bring to my work, I have found that sharing my version seems to quash their creative response.  Once they hear my “version,” they no longer feel theirs is valid.  I always hope that the engaged viewer actually has a creative experience when reacting to art, whether it’s visual, music or literary.

The great literary critic William Gass explores the notion of the “self” in art in his new book, Life Sentences.  As discussed by reviewer Adam Kirsch in the New York Times, Gass says:  “‘What works of art testify to is the presence in this world of consciousness, consciousness of many extraordinary kinds,’ he writes…  But this is ‘not that of the artists themselves, for theirs are often much the same as any other person’s…  It is not the writer’s awareness I am speaking of but the awareness he or she makes.  For that is what fine writing does:  it creates a unique verbal consciousness.'”

This is a fascinating idea:  that art creates a unique consciousness in the viewer’s experience of it.  This goes beyond what I tell my students, that the art should always “speak for itself.”  What do you think:  do you prefer to know the artist’s story behind his/her work, or would you rather experience it without explanation?

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“When This You See, Remember Me…”

In an antique store in Woodruff, Wisconsin, I came across a little album of autographs.  It had a well-worn velvet cover, and its contents told me that it was the property of Emelia Daw (nee Buchert), who received it in 1890 at the age of 15 years.  The last signature is in 1930, when Mrs. Daw (as she is addressed in the later  salutations) would have been 55 years old… the same age I am now.

All of the signers wrote “Dear Emelia (or Mrs. Daw)”, followed by a formulaic inscription.  Her “friend and teacher”, Marguerite Hill, wrote:

“Premeditate your speeches, words once flown

Are in the hearer’s power and not your own.”

On May 19th, 1898, Otto Brandt wrote, with creative spelling:  “Dear Emilie, If you love me as I love you know knife can cut our love in to.”

The pages are signed “Your Friend”, “Your brother”, “From Your Dear Melda” (her daughter, who signed twice).  The earliest signers wrote in German, so I can’t vouch for the contents, but I think it’s safe to assume they followed the convention of the day and wrote well-used tropes.  One of my favorite pages is from Emilia’s sister, who wrote in 1897:

“Sister Emelia,

The time is swiftly passing by,

When we must bid adieu,

We know not when we meet again,

So these lines I leave with you.”

In the corner margin, she wrote:  “Remember the pantry jokes”.  Salt in the sugar bowl?  What mischief did they cook up?!

I brought the album to the Chicago Botanic Garden, where I am teaching a class in calligraphy.  My students were fascinated with the beauty of the penmanship.  The writers used quill-shaped pens dipped in ink bottles, similar to the ones we use in class.  As the years went along, the writing became less formal, resembling Palmer cursive hand-writing.  One imagines that the manner of dress and speech also became less formal, as these German immigrants adjusted to their life in America and things became more modern.  Today, we can compose and publish with no pen, no paper, and no pants on.

They had names like Alma, Anna, Elsie, Hermann, Otto, Hazel.  They came from Wisconsin towns called Bancroft, Ellington, Hortonville, Greenville, Washburn, Appleton, Watertown and Stevens Point.  I think Emelia came from Hortonville, which made me laugh, because Hortonville was always my family’s synonym for “Nowhere” after our car broke down there on a family road-trip.

Emelia cherished this little album for at least 40 years.  As her friends married, she went back to their autograph page and inscribed it with their wedding date (e.g., Henry Riesenweber,  Ellington, March 11, 1891; married 13 Oct., 1901.)

Each of the inscriptions, with its ornate calligraphy or pencilled scrawl, conjure up a personality.  One can almost hear their voices.  As a person who embraces the fluidity and ease of technology, I find that calligraphy brings a slow pace and tactile quality to writing that is all but lost today.  In the careful forming of letters, the scratch of pen on paper, the  setting-up of ink between two scored lines from a metal pen, the content of the inscription (whether it be a saccharin couplet in an autograph book or a literary quotation) becomes a separate concern.  For Emelia’s friends, their inscription showed their devotion; writing was their gift.

I am learning Copperplate, a very formal and difficult style of calligraphy.  Here is my practice piece:

It humbles me that Marguerite Hill, Emelia’s “friend and teacher”, wrote better than I do, and she wrote that way ALL THE TIME.

Art As Play: Mimicking The Act Of Creation

Midnight Garden, 2007, by Judith Joseph

Leah Hagar Cohen, writing about Ursula Hegi’s new book in the NY Times Book Review, beautifully describes the creative process of novelists.  As a visual artist, this description speaks to me, as well:

All novelists are godlike. Sovereign creators of worlds they populate with beings wrought from something less than dust and rib, they set events in motion and determine their consequences. The situation is less ideal than it sounds: omnipotence can be a dreary limitation. That’s why the best novelists are also childlike. Bent over impalpable dollhouses, moving their lips while they rearrange the furniture and figures, they give themselves over to such deep play that their stories read less like a premeditated imposition than obedience to the whispered suggestions of the universe.

Ursula Hegi belongs to this second category, and she attends not to a single dollhouse but to an entire imagined village…  One senses in Hegi a willingness to lose herself in play, in the service of play.

The idea of “a willingness to lose [one]self in play, in the service of play” is a useful one for creative people.  We need to get serious about un-seriousness.  There is a dreamy quality to play that Cohen describes so beautifully, it is worth remembering, or indeed, inscribing on the studio walls.  Acting in “obedience to the whispered suggestions of the universe” will remind us that, in our creative acts, we are mirroring the act of Creation.  If we view this not as egomaniacal hyperbole, but rather the humbling knowledge that each of us, in his or her own way, participates in the creation of the world in every moment, it helps us get out of our own way and dance to the tune of the creative song that is within each of us.


East vs. West

Egret, by Regina Siske

“I am totally captivated by the beautiful, challenging art form of Asian brush painting.

‘The rhythmic ritual of grinding my own ink feels very meditative.  It prepares me to paint with a certain calm and presence, while connecting me to the daunting knowledge of a ritual that was practiced 4000 years ago.

‘The spirituality of Asian painting is an inspiration in its reverence for nature, from the most imposing mountain to the tiniest insect.  It is permeated with a spirit of gratitude– starting with the ink, brushes and hand-made papers.  It is said that an old brush is never thrown away, but reverently buried.

‘Studying with local teachers and international masters has been an evolution for me, as each teacher imparted his/her lessons of essential brush-strokes, which grew out of traditional Chinese calligraphy.  In the beginning, I tried to emulate the style of my teacher, in the old Asian tradition of learning.  Now, I am finding my own way, my own style and my own ‘landscapes’”….  Regina Siske, artist

Reggie is a friend of mine.  In the spirit of this blog, I have been helping her prepare for a solo exhibition of her paintings this summer, providing “technical support for a creative life.”  This took the form of designing her postcard and business card, photographing her work and digitally correcting the photos, uploading her work to a website, providing editorial feedback on her artist’s statement and bio, etc.

As I listened to her read her artist’s statement, I was struck by the dignity and beauty of her words, and how these qualities are mirrored in her paintings.  In an elegant way, she describes the humility and reverence with which one approaches Asian brush painting.  As a Hebrew calligrapher whose work is also tied to an ancient tradition, her words resonated with me.  For years, I refrained from signing my ketubahs (decorated Hebrew marriage contracts).  I felt that I was a link in a long chain of scribes who wrote Torahs and other sacred texts, anonymously.  The ketubah isn’t a sacred text; rather, it is a contract and a work of folk art, and eventually I put my stamp on it, creatively and appellatively.

More significantly, Reggie made me think about the contrast between an artistic tradition based on humility and gratitude, rather than ego and self-promotion.  As I work to make a living as an artist, I need to “get the word out” about my work.  Additionally, one of my professional gigs is art coach, to help others promote their work.

There is nothing wrong with all this horn-tooting, but at times it still makes me cringe.  I keep coming back to the bedrock of all this activity:  it is all about the work.  In other words, if we just put the work out there, it will speak for itself.  And, conversely, no matter how much hoopla we make, if the work isn’t speaking to people, all the noise will fall on deaf ears.

I think you will agree, when you regard Reggie’s work (above), that it speaks with a strong, gentle, lovely voice.  See more of Reggie’s work at her website, and August 5-30 at the Wilmette Public Library, 1242 Wilmette Avenue, Wilmette, Illinois.  Opening reception:  Friday, Aug. 5, 6-8 p.m.

It’s Tough To Be A Diva

I had the pleasure of attending Renee Fleming’s concert at the Lyric Opera on Dec. 12.  She sang the first half of the concert in a beautiful, emerald green satin gown with a floor-length stole, which she swooped around with great effect.  Following the intermission (and completing the Christmas palette), she re-emerged in a gorgeous red gown (see photo).  In her friendly, “just us folks” manner, she told her audience that it’s tough to be a diva.  “A week ago,” she told us, “I performed at the White House.  I made a grand entrance in my gown– with a 3″ velcro roller stuck to it!”

Yes, Renee, it must be tough to be a diva, but you do it so well!  It’s refreshing to see a real star who is willing to puncture the balloon of ego a bit, while graciously embodying glamour and class.  Most importantly, she sang beautifully, as always.

Welcome to Chicago, we look forward to your picks as Lyric Opera curator of new operas and creative consultant. 

On the other hand, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro gave an embarassing performance on “Late Night With David Letterman” last night.  De Niro looked sorely affronted to appear, and clearly was acutely suffering under contractual obligations to promote his new movie in the Fokkers series, those gems of cinematic art.  He offered mostly mono-syllabic responses, which heightened the veteran host’s discomfort.  Letterman was thrown off his game, resorting to listing the duo’s film achievements in a sycophantic manner, to audience applause.  Hoffman became De Niro’s interlocutor, answering questions for him in a manner that suggested that he too was too cool for the room.  It got me thinking of peer pressure at an absurd level, because had he appeared alone, Hoffman would probably have been much more engaging, but his buddy De Niro set the bully bar high.

Must be tough to be a divo.  Such a pain to endure so much attention and adulation.  Of course, maybe it was a farce; you be the judge.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=CTOpkW4ZUMI