Monthly Archives: June 2011

Artist’s Statement

Not the one I'm working on, but like it...

Every mark on my current pen and ink seems etched into my cerebral cortex. I’m up to fifteen hours working on it, and, when I close my eyes, it’s still there, the set of an endless play that features just one actor, me.  And no audience.

Writing and visual art fight for my attention, but during the school year, I don’t have obsessive time to paint or draw. Instead, my creative life is here. I write a post each weekend and add a new poem to derelict satellite.  Mid-week, I try to edit work from Joe Felso and post it. I’ve been spotty lately. I’ve been doing visual art instead.

For me, words cover subjects. Sometimes they fit well and other times indifferently, but only occasionally do they rise to high style or costume. They rely on the body beneath. Were I a more talented writer, I think I might do more than tailor. But most of the time I hope for a clever cut, something to highlight or hide familiar and immutable features.

Paintings and drawings create themselves. I stare at a blank sheet of watercolor paper until it becomes something. I do abstracts, but even when my work is more representative, fidelity often drops away until the subject I clothe is a ghost. Pens and brushes know no choreography. They move as spirit moves them, largely independent of intention, and reveal more in abandon than anyone, including me, might like.

I’m not any better at visual art or writing, but people sometimes ask me which one I like more. Moment-to-moment answers occur to me. The same motive inspires both—to make the mental physical—but, when I write, my ideas are already waiting there. Writing is true to me, a wife I’m absolute devoted to. I’ve embraced our covenant and made it my work. I honor it as the engine of my growth and evolution.

Visual art is my mistress.

Another from the same series...

This week, I received an email from Zatista, my cyber art seller, asking me to update my site. I haven’t added anything in quite some time, in part because I’ve sold very little. But the other impediment is the writing associated with each piece. I don’t mind the scanning, uploading, or the straight describing, but messages beyond dimensions and media defy me. I look at each image and think, “What do I say about this?” It all seems made-up. My wife would rather not introduce my mistress.

And sometimes I’m embarrassed. I think I could do without this second compulsion, might do more in my writing without another distraction, and wonder if, ultimately, these abstracts are indulgences that need hiding.

In the fall, I’m having an art show at my school. It will be another coming out, another airing of my sordid infidelity. I want to be proud and say “This is me,” but perhaps it’s the nature of visual art to reveal its author more fundamentally. That’s scary. There’s less dressing up, less hiding in folds and pleats and seams.

My mistress will be on display. I’ll be inside out and wondering how that can be flattering.

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Calling All Lonelyhearts

On the “Site Stats” page, WordPress includes a heading “Search Engine Terms,” and, over time, I’ve learned to look at that heading first. My purpose isn’t practical. I’m not clever enough to use any of the terms as marketing tools, and I’m not on WordPress for fame or fortune. I’ve long given up trying to appeal to mass audiences, be a big blog, or reach Freshly Pressed. It’s just that what I find under “Search Engine Terms” is interesting and, sometimes, heart rending.

Or heart rendering. When I walk on Chicago’s streets, I secretly glance into the faces of people headed in the other direction. We share impassive expressions and don’t dare give anything up that would make us vulnerable to a stranger. Yet I look for hints of shadowy feelings inside them. It’s those feelings that sometimes materialize under “Search Engine Terms.”

My blog gets its share of plagiarists looking for scraps on authors or books, but real people also pop up in those terms. Recently I read “Reconciling ambition and humility,” and sometimes multiple people will search “Quiet desperation,” “Dejection,” or “Self-Loathing.” Maybe I should be worried my blog emerges when they look for these subjects, but I’m more interested in the people who treat the Google space like an oracle, who type “Why can’t I find someone?” expecting an answer. I feel for them. I understand them.

Nathaniel West’s 1933 novel Miss Lonelyhearts focuses on a male journalist who, under that persona, dispenses advice to the distressed. The irony, of course, is that he is more distressed than anyone he consoles and lost in drink, in sex, in doubt he has no means of abating. The cosmic joke of the novel is even bigger than that: the search for understanding often leads us to the similarly forlorn, and they, it turns out, can only offer more of the desperation we feel. One drowning person meets another, and sometimes it seems we are spent swimmers, choking each other’s art.

Which, actually, might not be so bad. I’m no Miss Lonelyhearts—I can’t pretend to have answers—but some of the struggles I share here are really attempts at hope. Hope is the shore I see and have trouble reaching. Still, I’m pulling toward it… and don’t mind company.

On one level, blogging isn’t any more complicated than a lonelyhearts club, a place to be less strange to each other, a place to express doubts we share.

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Impractical Jokes

biganimal125.jpg I’m bad at practical jokes—both as the perpetrator and the recipient. I’m somehow innoculated against their humor.

But I am a master of impractical jokes.

An impractical joke is conceptual, implausible, and almost entirely pointless. It’s a scenario that floats into your mind randomly and departs with barely a smile, like…

1. Drawing a moustache on every face in the Sunday newspaper before your family gets up and then carefully putting the paper back together and back outside

2. Placing one can of beer in the the faculty coke machine

3. Inputting phony information into the computer card catalogue, things like Look Out!: The Use of the Grapefruit as a Crippling Projectile in Medieval Warfare

4. Telling someone you wear a hairpiece (when you don’t) and watching them stare at your hairline for the rest of the week

5. Planting one piece of bad information in a class (like “Walt Whitman was an African-American” or “Emily Dickinson collected bottle caps”) so some subsequent teacher down the line will say, “Oh, you had Mr. Marshall, didn’t you?”

Humor, I’m not the first to suggest, always has a victim, which is why most of the plans listed above stay in my brain. I don’t like creating victims and especially don’t like being one.

I made the mistake one year of telling a class about #5 above, and, for a week, they reacted to every new piece of information with a pause, “Is this the bad information you’re tagging us with?” I felt sorry for them. To be a practical joker, you must not sympathize with the victim. Instead, I can’t stand to demean someone with a joke, and nearly everything strikes me as potentially demeaning.

But I’m constantly thinking of impractical jokes anyway.

At a school where I taught, one of the students would knock periodically on the door of the teachers’ lounge, always on dubious errands. He’d ask, “Is Mr. Malloy here?” and then insinuate his head and shoulders into the room, pivoting around to take it all in—what was there, who was there, and how they were interacting. Given that teachers’ lounge was notable only for its volkswagon-sized photocopier, you’d think one visit would be enough, but this student appeared two or three times that semester.

My plan: purchase a number of horsey-head floatation rings and distribute them to the faculty gathered after lunch. Have the nosy child sent to the lounge on a planted errand, only to find the faculty gathered as at a party, all us wearing our rings and drinking Mountain Dew. When his head appeared at the door, we would turn as if we’d been caught sacrificing a chicken.

I don’t know why the Mountain Dew—the scene just came to me that way.

Another sort of person might want to execute these jokes—couldn’t resist making them practical and real—but I prefer confessing to a very small number of friends, people who won’t think less of me for being so secretly devious.

What’s more revealing, that jokes occur to me constantly or that I have the thoughts and don’t act upon them? Is it healthy or unhealthy when my answer to “Wouldn’t it be funny if…?” is always “No”?

Maybe I’m too sensitive. Maybe the practical jokers have it right. If the joke is harmless, why worry? And, as for impractical jokes, if a joke falls in the forest, and no is there to experience it…you get the idea.

My trouble is…who gets to decide “harmless”? I always have a chance of being funny, conceptually. No one—no one I can think of, anyway—will get hurt.

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The Three Reasons

The three best reasons to be a teacher are June, July, and August—an old joke, but for teachers, the joke expresses gratitude and the one unassailable advantage of being underpaid.

From people in other professions, questions accompany the joke: “So what are you doing?” or “What do you do with yourself all day?” or “Anything good on daytime TV?”

I get defensive. I want to answer, “You’re right, no real job requires so much time off,” or “You know what? I do like my job best when I’m not doing it.”

No one needs me on a farm. The old-fashioned, practical reason for summer has lapsed. If I argue teaching is a boundary-less job the rest of the year, occupying every evening and every weekend, people groan. What job doesn’t have sprawling hours in 2011?

Sometimes, I justify summer by saying I need time to restore my brake pads. By graduation, I say, I’ve run out of patience, I’m “metal to metal.” Year-round workers say, “Yeah, I’ve really got to figure out how to replace mine while the car is moving.” If I counter, “At least you don’t have to work with children,” they say, “Oh really?”

It’s also a bad idea to explain what I do with my day.  I stop getting up early to grade papers and spend more time on family and household projects.  I try to get more exercise, eat better, write, and paint. And I read five or six books I’ve been meaning to get to.

The sound you hear is a shovel digging a deeper and deeper hole. Truth is, my sense of guilt can produce an odd pressure to be productive, creative, and diligent. After the exhilaration of early June, summer can become a Sargasso Sea. With no lessons to prepare or papers to grade, no wind compels me. Every morning begins by putting oars to water. Trips—vacations from my vacation—can feel strange, false. I need to work to deserve fun.

And I still need some justification—some satisfying justification—for being off. My own reason.

In his oration “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson describes a fable in which the gods, “Divided Man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself; just as the hand was divided into fingers, the better to answer its end.” The point, Emerson says, is that there is really only, “One Man—present to all particular men only partially.” He bemoans that we are farmers, professors, or bankers first and people second. We should be people farming, people teaching, or people banking. We have to transcend individual labors to embrace humanity; otherwise, “The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters.” We are, “A good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow,” he says, “but never a man.”

These days, we celebrate our differences. Our understanding is often a “fill-in-the-blank thing” no one else can truly feel or understand. In contrast, Emerson says, “A man, rightly viewed, comprehendeth the particular natures of all men.”

In Understanding Emerson:“The American Scholar” and his Struggle for Self-Reliance, Kenneth Sacks treats the oration as Emerson’s coming-out party, the first time he bit a hand that fed him in the form of Harvard, the college that nurtured his entire family. From Emerson’s perspective, Harvard was increasingly obsessed with class rank and enhancing students’ cultural literacy and social standing. He felt the school had lost sight of the seeds of thought and creativity he revered. In failing to see themselves and their students as people first, the school overvalued material and undervalued humanity and the iconoclasm of the new nation. Emerson’s criticism came as a surprise—he had, after all, been invited to speak by the college—but the warmest response came from students who clustered at the windows to listen. One of them was Henry David Thoreau.

Perhaps you hear a justification—or rationalization—forming. If I do summer correctly, I become a person teaching. I can stop defining myself by what I do and examine who I am. I’ll remember the impulses that led me into teaching, fall back in love with learning, and forget academic politics and any rocky relationships with colleagues.

In the morning, I can scan the pages looking for a headline that piques my curiosity or addresses a subject on which I’d like to be feel educated. I seek, in an almost dreaming way, to add to what I know. The best aspect of reading and studying, in Emerson’s mind, is that it “says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well nigh thought and said.”

“The one thing in the world, of value,” Emerson said, “is the active soul.”

So here’s to June, July, and August, the months of my active soul. Here’s to the responsibility to be human again.

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My Friend Phileas

My Phileas fountain pen—my constant grading companion over the last ten years or so—is broken. Recently, I retired it… but not without mourning.

Putting the pen aside reminded me of an essay I wrote in response to an assignment I once gave my students.  It’s based on The Catcher in the Rye:

Stradlater’s English teacher gives his class an assignment: write a descriptive essay. Stradlater, busy with Jane Gallagher, asks Holden to help. Holden’s good at English. He knows, according to Stradlater, how to put commas in the right place. Because reality often imitates fiction, you will write something “descriptive as hell.” Be like Holden. Just as Holden describes something important to him—Allie’s left-handed fielder’s mitt—you should describe something important to you. If you pick something that matters, your writing will matter. Your writing will be fueled by your object’s significance.

As I sometimes do, I wrote my own response to this assignment, and, today, I’m updating “My Friend Phileas” to deal with my loss:

People don’t really get to define themselves. Most of the time they reveal themselves when they aren’t trying to, in some mundane task or unconscious gesture. These moments present the observer with a sort of core sample, a random poke in the soil that reveals the quality of the field. In the case of people, a single instant can characterize the whole. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could assure those core samples were always rich earth instead of sand or manure?

Possessions are different. The things you choose to cling to are a deliberate reflection of what you value, and the one thing I’ve gripped over the last decade has been my Waterman fountain pen. The specific model of the pen is Phileas, named after Phileas Fogg, the main character of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, and it looks like a pen he might have carried. It’s suitable for daily use, easy to care for, and—I like to think—not at all weighty or pretentious. It’s sleek and small, not bulbously self-important or anything dignitaries would use to sign legislation or treaties. It’s plastic. The marbled resin of its body looks like stone, and it has three gold bands near the top, the middle, and the bottom, but it isn’t marble or gold. The bottom band includes a decorative tab that looks a little like a crest of the sun rising. My use of the pen has worn some of the gild away. Underneath, it’s stainless steel.

Whenever people commented on my “fancy pen,” I’ve tried to convince them it was a bargain, perhaps because I’m worried they’ll think me extravagant or wasteful. I have to tell them how long I’ve had it and how much I paid for it—$35. I hear myself saying over and over that, at that price, it’s cheaper than losing a ballpoint a week. I like to think of myself as a no-nonsense guy who is entirely un-flashy, and I’m afraid they’ll misunderstand my wielding this weapon of the moneyed class.

Here’s the truth. It’s been a beautiful object in my life and a friend. Every once in a while, I’ll absentmindedly leave it somewhere—my bedside table or my desk at work or next to the copier or some other strange but at the time sensible place. Then I’m lost. So what if I’ve amortized it entirely, its loss would be a tragedy. As an emblem of permanence in turbulent life, it’s irreplaceable. So many other things have drifted off, broken, or become obsolete. My pen hasn’t. My attachment is the desperate grip of an anchor in a storm.

Sometimes I think grading papers would be impossible without it. I use purple ink cartridges and love to watch the pen filling margins with curly purple script. In meetings, the pen insists on formulating expansive and baroque doodles. With every other pen, I press too hard, but Phileas follows lines already there.

Frictionless, its flow of ink steady and reliable, it has always seemed overjoyed at what I ask it to do… until it requests another cartridge.

Objects can’t truly be expressive. We make them do our bidding. But in an eerie sense, the ink in a pen comes from you. A friend who also loves his own fountain pen tells me the particular way a writer angles the point wears the soft gold of its nib in idiosyncratic ways. Fountain pens, he says, are trained to your hand and stubborn and balky in any other. With my Phileas, I wondered who trained whom. My pen felt like me…or, at least, a me I enjoy being.

I have a reason for letting past tense peek through this account. I had to retire my Phileas recently. Everything erodes. Metal isn’t as hard as you think. The nib of the pen has worn to a new shape, and the channel that brings ink now pinches and makes it flow irregularly and gloopily. I’ve denied these changes for a while—along with the cap that slips off much too easily and the shirt clip I have to put back once a day—but I couldn’t anymore.

Maybe it’s silly to mourn objects, but facing the truth hasn’t been easy. The Phileas style is no longer available, so choosing a replacement feels like closing a chapter. I worry I won’t love my new pen as much, and, even more than that, I worry I’m abandoning an old friend. Then there’s the sense the Phileas is me, and I am Phileas.

Do I hide it in a drawer, hoping to encounter it serendipitously with warm feelings later? Do I honor its service with a prominent place?

After losing and rediscovering it so many times, after following it over endless pages and watching its play, I can’t simply let it go. Forgetting would be forgetting part of myself, and I wonder if anyone can ever be ready for that.

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More Starts and No Finishes

As I’m busy grading exams this weekend, the only post I can muster is another collection of first lines.  I used a random number generator to put them is this order. Let me know if you think any of them are worth pursuing in a real post:

1. When I imagine dying, I think of silence, the sounds I’ve stopped hearing the first I miss.

2. In my family, no one likes to clean, and the living room is the site of some of our greatest passive-aggressive standoffs.

3. Reading is stubbornly two-dimensional—we only experience words arranged in sentences and can’t jump the line.

4. The greatest measure of how much I distrust myself is that, when something gets lost, the proper place is the last spot I think to look.

5. Some memories are beer and others wine—some you drink, the rest you leave unspoiled by opening.

6. I hate the instant a friendship sours and know that moment too well.

7. Sometimes I like to imagine historical figures meeting on train platforms.

8. You may not know that we have earthquakes in Chicago or that I’m the only one who feels them.

9. The modern addiction to novelty seduces us into believing anything in the past—even in the immediate past—is irrelevant.

10. Students and I never experience the same books… because rereading and reading are not at all the same thing.

11. My affection for whistling makes me dream of reverse karaoke where the singing is taped and I provide the tune.

12. The most horrifying lesson my parents taught me is that any future is possible.

13. Every collection begins with the assumption that desire can’t be fulfilled and that satisfaction is the worst outcome.

14. Most writers worry creative mines won’t yield, but a personal essayist has to wonder if, after all the digging, the surface will support any structure at all.

15. Teaching is fine, but someday I’d like a job title I have to explain.

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Abstracting Abstraction

hopper.jpg If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint. – Edward Hopper

I once visited the Art Institute of Chicago to see an Edward Hopper show. I’ve long admired Hopper’s paintings. His city scenes exude narrative mystery, and even his Gloucester homes and Maine lighthouses appear oblique and somehow something other than what they seem.

The art was all I hoped and more—no photograph could capture it—but something in the museum’s background information on Hopper left me a little disappointed. We want to be liked by those we like, and I have a feeling Hopper would thoroughly disapprove of my work. My guess rests on his vision of abstraction, specifically this statement:

One of the weaknesses of much abstract painting is the attempt to substitute the inventions of the intellect for a pristine imaginative conception. The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form and design. The term ‘life’ as used in art is something not to be held in contempt, for it applies all of its existence, and the province of art is to react to it and not to shun it. Painting will have to deal more fully and less obliquely with life and nature’s phenomena before it can again be great.

Though our inner lives are “vast,” Hopper suggests, abstraction is pure “intellect” and not the concern of art, which devotes itself to “life” and our reactions to “nature’s phenomena.” As most of my work is abstract, Hopper’s comments evoke a doubt I try to keep at bay—is abstract art, art? Am I an artist?

The cartoonist Al Capp said abstract art is “a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered” and every abstract artist has heard the damning comment, “I could do that.” The rejoinder, “Do it then” never satisfies me, and, let’s face it, a great artist’s technical expertise contributes to the awe we feel in the presence of his or her work. Yet something in me wants to ask, “Is skill all there is to it?”

I couldn’t touch Hopper’s technical expertise. Periodically, I do representative work to train my eyes and inform my abstracts, but it’s seldom satisfying. Though more experience would improve my renderings, drawing seldom inspires me to do more drawing. Yes, pen and inks are harder—reality is truly the toughest taskmaster—but, more than that, pen and inks are tedious. Once I begin, the task is laid out before me. It offers little pleasure other than exercising skills I’ve tried to develop. Foremost in my mind is the question, “Is this pen stroke right?” The quality of the piece rests largely on concentration and discipline, not creativity.

Perhaps it’s my approach. Art teachers ask for character in line, so that even a simple sketch communicates the artist’s sensibility and perspective. I can never say I’ve expressed myself in doing representative work. Anyone with a little training might do as well. I could do it again and again and eliminate all the mistakes, and that might make it more impressive. But would the reiterations make it better? I feel defeated from the start when I do representative work. Other artists will always best me in fidelity. My only chance is invention. My only gift, it seems, is seeing what isn’t out there.

officeatnight.jpgThe experience makes me want to argue with Hopper. He said, “Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist” and “No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination.” Looking at his women, I see comic books, not Ingres, and I’m sure his prejudice against abstraction didn’t extend as far as revering representational art. To communicate his “inner life” he abstracted. In “Office at Night” on the left, the woman filing is cartoonishly proportioned, poured into her dress. He may have had the skill to present her accurately, but he seemed more interested in reflectingsuninanmtrm.jpg his imaginative vision, accuracy be damned. While he may have rejected the abstract expressionism coming into vogue at the end of his career, his work is not un-abstract, as “Sun in an Empty Room” (left) demonstrates. If you didn’t know what a window was, you might see this painting as invented.

Lucien Freud said, “The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real.” For some artists, rendering an image accurately must be like love. You study the object so intimately it ceases to be what it represents. However, for me, abstraction works the same way, only in reverse. The initial discovery of the image can spring like Athena from my subconscious, but just as quickly, I begin to see familiar shapes, shadows, and depths that are not purely abstract. To revise Lucien Freud, the longer I look at the abstraction, the more objective it becomes, and, at least for me, the more real.

Sometimes I look at my pictures and exploit what seems real about them, taking advantage of the shapes and patterns I see to make them evoke something real.  The painting on the right is an example. The white shapes became distorted chess pieces or talismans akin to ivory goddesses. The darker shapes, particularly the one in blue, is a whirlpool of dye in water. And then there are the profiled faces you might wish I hadn’t pointed out.

The result is nothing Hopper or anyone else would recognize, but I hoped perhaps it could be subconsciously familiar, somehow real without being so.

Of course, an artist can never entirely know what reaches a viewer and what doesn’t. Maybe my attention endows my abstracts with more meaning than they have. As undistinguished as my representative work seems to me, people seem more impressed by it. My abstracts leave many viewers cold. At a show a few years ago, one of my colleagues could only say, “My, you sure are prolific!” Some viewers can’t fathom why an artist would bypass familiarity and the opportunity to show off artistic skills just to paint something no one recognizes.

I just never thought Edward Hopper would be one of them.

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