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I’m at the annual meeting and conference of Unitarian Universalists, General Assembly: this year, in New Orleans. Instead of bringing knitting to occupy my hands through the many meetings and workshops, as I have done before, this time I brought my sketchbook. The last three might be called Variations on a Theme by Brice Marden, since seeing some of his work at SFMOMA last week clearly influenced what’s in my head.

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Sometimes, being a minister means working with some prickly people. They’re among the congregational leaders or visitors or–particularly tenderly–among the people I visit when they’re sick or sad. Not long ago, I was on my way to meeting with a member of the congregation when I passed under a stand of sweet gum trees (I think that’s what they are), whose seeds I love whenever I see them, and have never dared to draw. I went on to the meeting, and in our conversation, the person was both prickly and, to me, very beautiful: honest, caring, vulnerable. When I left, I picked up one of the fallen seeds, and I drew it that evening. In my private thoughts, it has this person’s name.

I’m loving exploring this idea from different angles. When does a grid stop being a grid? What is it then? The tension between the formal rules of the grid and the movement that arises through and in spite of that form evoke all sorts of other tensions in my mind. To what extent are our lives ordered or chaotic, regimented or free, communal or individual?

Both of these are about 4″x6″, drawn with ink in a pocket sketchbook. The light and camera available distort the colors, but you can get the idea.


I keep drawing these grids in my little 4×6 sketchbook.

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I’m experimenting with how to change the shape and flow of the squares; in my view this next one went off the rails, but the two people who have seen it both like it a lot, so what does the artist know:

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These next two are my favorites–I love the way they ripple and move:grid-5-from-sketchbookgrid-6-from-sketchbook

I thought this one wasn’t finished (I don’t have my markers with me and there are still orange intersections to put in at the bottom), but since I was scanning the rest I scanned it too. Now I think maybe it is finished.

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In related news, I’ll be putting up 17 drawings, prints, and alebrijes from my sabbatical in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto lobby today, with comments on each one. They’ll be there through the end of March.

I’ve been working on this drawing for a few weeks, as part of a series on change, decay, and erosion. It feels like a collaboration with the unknown sculptor or sculptors who carved these paths through the wood of a tree. I do not know who they are or even their species–some kind of insect, most likely–but I am moved by the patterns they make, which could also be called decay and disease.

Discovered on the leg of an outdoor table in San Augustin Etla, Oaxaca. Pencil on paper, 6.5 x 8.5 inches, November 2016.

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I’m working on a silkscreen print in the same series–it will be of rust–but it went wrong and I decided to start over. I’ll have to begin a new screen on Saturday.

Here’s another in a series. I finished it a few weeks ago and then took the ideas in a new direction, seen here. The common thread is the way forms show without outlines. They just emerge, presences that are undeniably there even without clear definitions. It didn’t work quite to my liking with this one, hence the new direction, but it was fun.

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There’s a passage in the novella “Seymour: An Introduction” by J. D. Salinger, advice from Seymour to his younger brother, Buddy, a writer, with which I have an ambivalent relationship. It has been sitting in my quotations file, mocking me, for several years. On the one hand, it seems very wise. And I don’t know if Salinger succeeded in following it (or even thought he should), but he was a very fine writer and so when his alter ego, Buddy, gets a piece of writing instruction, I listen up. I’ve rewritten it here to be advice to a visual artist:

You . . . sit very still and ask yourself, as a [viewer], what piece of [art] in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to [see] if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and [create] the thing yourself.

My ambivalence arises from the fact that I don’t think I have ever managed to make a piece of art in this way. I see art that makes me gasp and sigh with instant recognition: it has given shape to something in my spirit. And I’ve made lots of art that I like, that expresses something of what I perceive. But to have an image come to me that is just what I most want to see? . . . no. I can’t think of a time when that’s happened.

It’s not that such art would necessarily be better. What I seek is that fluid connection between the images in my mind and the longing of my spirit. And this week I felt that connection in a way I can’t recall feeling before. This is the piece I most wanted to see, or close to it:

img_7314Untitled, pencil on paper, 4.5 x 6 inches

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Grief (with thanks to Denise Levertov), conte crayon on paper, 11 x 12 inches

Levertov’s poem “Talking to Grief” gave me this image that helps me to acknowledge and honor such sorrows; I’m so grateful. And grateful also to my spiritual director, the Rev. Sandee Yarlott, for the language of “acknowledging” and “honoring.”

While I was working on the drawing, I returned to the poem and decided to try to translate it into Spanish. Robert Frost said that poetry is what gets lost in translation, and it’s probably more than I can do to get a literal translation right, much less evoke the poetry of the original. I have a lot of questions for my Spanish teachers when we meet next week, such as “what’s the nearest Spanish equivalent to ‘grief’?” and which of the various terms for “mat” evokes the kind you’d be likely to give to a stray dog, and whether the tone is at all like Levertov’s. But here’s my first pass at it. Friends who are fluent in Spanish, I’d love your input on the translation, if you’re so inclined. The English original is here.

Hablando a Luto
por Denise Levertov

Ah, Luto, yo no debería tratarte
como un perro sin hogar
que venga a la puerta trasera
por una corteza, por un hueso sin carne.
Yo debería confiar en ti.

Yo debería engatusarte
para entrar la casa y darte
tu propio rincón,
Una estera gastada para acostarte,
tu propio plato de agua.

Tú piensas que yo no sé que hayas estado viviendo
debajo de mi porche.
Tú añoras que tu verdadero lugar esté preparado
antes de que el invierno venga. Necesitas
tu nombre,
tu collar y chapa. Necesitas
el derecho de ahuyentar intrusos,
considerar
mi casa la tuya
y yo tu persona
y tú mismo
mi proprio perro.

 

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Pencil & ink, 9.5 x 12.5 inches, July-August 2016

Some art works start with an image that comes to my mind, some with an idea I want to express, some with something I see that begs to be re-created on paper. And then there are some that begin with a powerful desire for an excuse to buy more fine-tipped markers.

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I think I’ll be doing more in this vein, but I’ve promised myself: no new pieces until I’ve finished most of the ones that are half-done.

 

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