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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.

 

My main sabbatical project is to make art, with a goal of doing so for several hours almost every day. The past few weeks, however, have been mostly “preparing the studio”: packing up our house for the renters, cleaning and repairing and buying and sorting, getting all our traveling ducks in a row (traveling ducks, how cute), and once here in Oaxaca, house-hunting and such. And I was on study leave for four weeks, so was doing a lot of writing and reading. I read Christ for Unitarian Universalists, by Scotty McLennan, which was well-written and interesting; and Promoting Diversity and Social Justice: Educating People from Privileged Groups, by Joan Goodman, whose interesting topic was overshadowed by the prose, which was dire even by dissertation standards (it clearly was written as a dissertation); and a boatload of fiction, including, at last, Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy–well, the first book and a half of it so far.

All necessary before the arting could begin. But I knew I would be glum if I didn’t do some art along the way, so I’ve been drawing, doing ceramics, or sketching notes for future pieces, and am now in the rhythm of doing some art every day. I’m almost done with my first piece in clay at Ishuakara (I don’t know how it came by a Japanese name; I keep forgetting to ask), and have another I’m hankering to start. All three of us can work there and have been doing so.

Several nights ago, in the fertile time of half-sleep, I thought of a series of pieces that seem so obvious and in keeping with things I’ve been thinking about for years that I couldn’t believe they had never come to me before. I won’t write about the project here except to say that it’s about the ambiguous nature of decay. I will post photos as I begin to make the pieces. One wrinkle: I am completely ignorant of printmaking and I am pretty sure that this series wants to be prints. An iron for the wrinkle: Oaxaca turns out to be a positive hotbed of printmakers, printmaking teachers, graphic arts collectives, and printmaking history. So I’m going to learn printmaking. While I am occupied with other things I am doing a little research on the different kinds of printmaking (I am telling you, I’m ignorant–I have heard of lithography and etching and monoprint and silkscreening, etc. etc., but since I don’t know how each technique works, I have no clue which one/s is/are best suited to the vision in my head).

Last night, on the way to a dance performance, I picked up a seedpod with such cries of delight that my peri-adolescent daughter treated me to half-disgusted condescension: “You’ve never noticed those before? I have.” Nope, never have, and don’t know what they are–I’ll have to go back and look at the tree–but this morning I drew it, intending this first pass to be very simple and monochromatic, almost schematic. As is always the way with drawing from nature, the process helped me see things about this lovely subject (I was going to say “object,” but it’s a subject) that mere looking hadn’t shown me. Can you see the mistake?: at one point, not yet wise to the necessity of keeping a finger on the podlet I had just drawn, I lost track of where I was and mixed up my figure and ground. Escher would have made something brilliant of that, but I just laughed at myself.

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The light on my daughter’s face, and the face, were so beautiful that I said “I wish I could draw you,” and to my surprise she volunteered to hold still for 10-15 minutes.

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It’s not a bad impression. It has that faraway look she has when she’s thinking. Naturally, it’s not as beautiful as the original.

After several years of drawing almost entirely with charcoal, I decided to take the plunge and try two new things: color, and a brush. I have a couple of brushes, but I couldn’t find them this morning, and just grabbed one of my eight-year-old daughter’s, with plastic bristles (Poor child! We must treat her to some proper brushes). I recently bought a few bottles of ink in shades of reddish brown for another project, so I brought those, and also the watercolor tubes I haven’t opened in five years.

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I brought my box of charcoal just in case, but I didn’t use it. But I was tempted. So tempted, because . . .

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. . . This was hard! I didn’t know what I was doing. I was figuring out the media as I went: how does ink spread? How do you judge the color when it’s in the dish? How much liquid does the brush hold? What happens if you paint over a place that’s already been painted and dried? I felt like I was back in kindergarten. It was less playful than scary.

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That fear was a humbling reminder of something I wish were not true of me, but often is: I do not like to do things I’m not good at.

imageHuh? What am I in the studio for, if not to do something I haven’t done before? Am I really playing it that safe most weeks? I hadn’t thought so–each session is certainly challenging and exciting, just trying to draw with the charcoal–but the way I felt today was unmistakable. It was what I feel when I’m doing something new and scary.

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As a result, it was also the most exciting session in a long time. The drawings are messy but (rather, and) full of novelty. In every one, I was trying something I literally haven’t done in decades, if ever. I even got my playfulness back.

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As Munchkin was looking at the drawings, she said, “I like these. You can tell you were really looking at the light.” I demurred, saying, “Sometimes I was, but mostly I was just making it up as I went along.”

imageShe looked at me and said, “That’s what art is.” My daughter, my teacher.

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