Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Small, Fine-Art Experiment

An experiment -- started on Gertrude Stein's birthday!, February 3 -- I am playing with a smaller, but not really very different, kind of art. I am making art at the coffee table, in a new place, and plan to talk about the pictures I am working on as well as writings and art and landscapes I see out in the world.

I have a couple of different "canvases" as starting points. Here is a small painting on a postcard:

This plays with the text I had seen on a museum wall... a land-locked, Northern painter was bringing the "saturated sunlight" of his brief stay in Rome to a portrait that might otherwise been filled with cool blues and greys... the picture was soft, like the brushstrokes here.

Then a second kind of artwork for me is painting in a book we bought from a second-hand book dealer in Dublin. We think it comes from the late nineteenth century, but there is no date or author, and the text is entirely in French. The subject is a bit unusual... the title is Scenes Erotiques Pompeii. Apparently, the wall paintings at Pompeii were "discovered" twice; once, in 1599, and promptly re-buried due to their erotic nature, and then later in the nineteenth century. At that point, the wall paintings were discreetly covered by draperies and  revealed only to grown men (really!) and the bronze/portable objects were spirited away into a cabinet in the collection of the King of Naples. This book was probably published illegally, since it prints uncensored line drawings of some of the wall paintings and of some of the bronze objects. I have added some collage, text and painting:

On the left is a fragment of a Gertrude Stein poem (this from Stanzas in Meditation) and on the right, some "arches" references.  I think of arches as places of discovery and creativity, and so the right-hand side page here includes a collage of a ticket to the Gerhard Richter film ... I will not publish any of the erotic pages in this blog, but I am treating the book as an effort of "uncovering."

The third kind of painting surface is a sketchbook, or rather a series of sketchbooks, that I work in all at the same time. This picture came from seeing a very good high-school production of Hamlet. My granddaughter was Ophelia, playing against a Hamlet who was also female. It was a really good show, especially for actors so young.  The way that Hamlet said “except my life, except my life” stayed with me. I don’t see our lives as serpentine. I see what we are doing as inevitable, as a straight line, from upstate New York to the Loiret, in France, to Normandy to the San Francisco Bay.  It all seems a continuum, even though I know people think we must be mad, uprooting ourselves like this. A synonym for serpentine can be Byzantine… and perhaps that’s what it is, a very complex straight line, with contentment/less is more as part of the mix and a messy set of emotions as the other. :

Landscapes change, lives change, and this is my way of responding to change: artistically, in small spaces, loving the exchanges among text, paint, and paper.

Oh, and starting a story:

1. There is Always an Audience

There is always an audience. I am writing for you. Perhaps you will find yourself, one day, at a hotel, stopping, for the night, on your way to Paris, and these words will help you to fall asleep. And if I write once for always I will not have to stop. Across your hotel courtyard, border collies watch the rabbits in their cages. The dogs are unsure. To play? To eat? The dogs do not know what they want. They do not know you. They do not know me. They try to wish the cages open.

Yesterday I found this note, in her handwriting. It had once been taped to something... a mirror? a notebook?

--W.B. Yeats

2. Only Candlelight

Did the hotel owner mention the storms? In this tiny village, it will be raining, perhaps, when you arrive. The courtyard floods and the lights die down.  Conversations happen that might not have taken place otherwise.

"Yes. It's mine," Helene told me, when I asked her about the note.  "The 'face I had before the world was made'....  It was something from a poem, a phrase Rick used to say as he was taking his photographs, when he was trying to get the 'before' into a picture of a changed landscape, the broken statue of a king.  But now I use it -- the wording -- for my own self." She smiled at me. "The 'face I had...'"  And then she walked away.

She wants to escape the life that lies under this life.

3. The Trees Are Up

And find some deeper “face,” some kind of un-changing core, the straight line through her lives.  (Can glamour be central to one’s “face”?  Because Helene still wears heels to hang the laundry on sunny days).

When it rains, in this otherwise sunny corner of France, the village fills with people seeking candles, people everywhere on foot and on bicycles, talking and stopping on their way back from the butcher, the baker, everyone surprised by rain.
In particularly harsh storms, every hundred years or so, trees fall, and there is no village life for days, and people die from loneliness and from not hearing voices.
One night, strong, unusual, almost human-sounding wind and lines of rain fell on the village. Everyone slept until the middle of the night, when it all stopped, went still for a moment.  Then the collies began to bark.  A new wind then began, not a steady wind any longer but an uneven, screaming sort of wind.  Everyone in the house called out. It was alright, it was over, and they slept.
The next morning, the baker’s wife did not come with her van.  Bernard, who helped out at the house next door, ventured out on his bicycle. He brought us all bread, and news. “Trees are up,”  he said.  “Down,” everyone said back to him, irritated, “trees come down,” but he insisted.  “These trees are up. And the mayor says we must clear our streets ourselves.”
He was right. (Bernard was not often right).  The trees lay up, roots exposed, pulled out of the ground.  The once precise and tidy gravel and dirt roads were impassable, strewn now with “up” trees. 

And, now that the rains are gone, let the sun take all your memories back,  let them burn. 

4. The three women insist.

You will feel the skies open as the clouds rise and soften. Concentrate.

The three women sat -- somewhere -- and would not move until I wrote about them.
So my editor said, “Just get started.” And then she said, “They’re sitting where?”
And I told her. They aren’t there, sitting where they were, anymore. But they come into play on busy city streets; they do not have the substance of people who bump into me, who argue over the truth, the man in the velvet jacket, a girl draped in necklaces over a dress patterned in bubbles. No. They aren’t like that. And that, frankly, is why they are so damned upset

The three of them hover somewhere over my right ear, inside my head, or meander down into my upper arms, creating a slow, steady, maddening tension. “What the hell are you doing?” they ask. “Why aren’t you doing your job? Just do what’s in your journals. Make us real.”  

5. Rows of Chairs

After the storm, out in the gray, quiet air, Baby sat down in the last row of chairs.  (I had set out two dozen).

“I didn’t know there were rows,” Helene said; “aren’t there only three of us?”

Meg had fallen into a chair, quiet, wondering if she would miss the ocean. The horizon was just curved, like the Pacific,


but it was trees and fields and all the wrong colors. It wasn’t a place to surf. It was so… green. Even the tree roots, reaching into the sky, were green, shot through with dull yellow.  And moving the limbs away from the road meant pale yellows and greens all over hands, sweaters, pants, drying quickly. Stains. Not the clear wash of the sea.

Meg wants me to explain that she tried to see what the others must be seeing.

She knows there was a bird, singing. Here she was. There was a kestrel, holding still, in the air. The birds didn’t care what country they were in. It was all the same to them. The grass looked a lot like grass from a painting.  In the distance, a hornet’s nest, tucked under the eaves of a neighbor’s barn, must have survived ten years. Outside was always outside. Only the inside could ever change.

 And you, have you made your decision?

6. Baby and Meg

Meg did not like this. She felt a sense. She thought perhaps it was a kind of need coming over her. But she did not want it to come over her here, in France.  She wanted to feel in a way that was hers alone.  She missed the loud pop music, the big noise behind American life.  She wore her pants at an angle upon her hips and settled back into her chair.
If the works of a person’s life are careful, Baby thought, and small, and entirely representative, then it is that life that can offer order and the best kind of identity. Small spaces, small brushes, small words, a familiar place, ordered, within a larger, perhaps chaotic, foreign place, that was where to write.
But was that too much to ask?
Baby dreams.
You try to fill your time, restless.  You recall, vaguely, that you had been misunderstood.

7. You

You. I have loved your wanting to be here. Just here.

I need you. Here.

8. Listen to "Atlas Eclipticalis"

The gravel gives off small warning signals.  No-one can walk into the courtyard unannounced.  That black and white flash in the corner of your eye -- the collies are chasing a sound -- will be foreign to you, as unlikely as your curling up in savanna grass with a yawning lioness. 

9. The Gravel is Quiet

The morning seems to be arriving so late… it is still dark. Baby, who stays up later than all of us, is now up earlier than we are. She throws water towards her face; it hits her cheeks, the sink, and the stone floor. She drinks a massive cup of hot chocolate as she sits in her soft chair, and she writes.
The sun rises over the neighbor's stone wall. Helene starts a serious pot of coffee, drives to the next town for croissants and, on her way back, speaks sharply to the landlord about the absence of hot water. The landlord makes elaborate promises, and mentions a vide-grenier (a town-wide flea market) to begin in an hour, by the river and the préfecture.  Helene returns to us, showers, dresses, and puts on her heels.  “Their roads are paved,” she says.
Meg throws together some sort of terrycloth-silk combination that stops mid-thigh. She is so beautiful -- even her knees are beautiful. But she has no ocean inside her, anymore, and she is afraid.
You remember a butterfly. You can see it.

The butterfly is blue and green and quite beautiful, delaying its movement to adjust to a slight breeze. It is fearless. You, in this moment, are fearless. 

10. Mud

Did I mention the mud? Clumps of mud, grass and gravel cling to our shoes and drop in small lines, dots and balls on the floor.  The deep brown-red soil, with bits of grass, can look rather picturesque against the soft rust-colored tiles.
But not to everyone. Meg has found the perfect combination of stiff-bristled broom and dishcloth and cleans the tiles several times a day. No-one else is allowed to interfere. It is the only time any of us have seen a ferocity in her.
I shoot out onto the roads between fields, the ones that say SAUF RIVERAINS (residents only … but I am a resident, of sorts), the dirt and the muck and the wind making me feel so happily free.
Can you feel the wind in your face?


The border collies began barking, and that set the turkeys and geese to running and making honking, ruffled noises.  Although they were ushered into the barn every night, these birds were never quite ready to go.
It was cocktail hour. Helene had spent the day leaning into the turrets, dovecotes, hay bales, and hedgerows, taking photographs, determined to tint the greens with browns and blacks. Then she thought perhaps soft blue, or a harsh turquoise, might work better, and she stepped back from all the propped-up landscapes and rested.  Fun. She brought out a red from the Touraine, some blackberry liqueur, and mixed drinks in the way she had learned from her stay in the Loire. “It’s called a Cardinal,” she said, and poured each of us an over-large portion.   
 Baby, of course, drank only Badoit.
Meg, silent, held out her glass for a second round.  And a third. 

12. The photograph

The picture of the petite maison was taped up on your wall, next to all your “to-do” notes.  You, with your hands already smelling of garlic and rosemary, you were already roasting chickens in that house, and walking into the village for a drink at the café, a bit of wine while you were waiting for the bird to finish cooking, some talking and laughing. You told me.

And you think how they have hired people now, to roast their chickens and write their stories, and it wasn’t you.

13. Stars

“If I make the lashes dark
And the eyes more bright
And the lips more scarlet,
Or ask if all be right
From mirror after mirror,
No vanity’s displayed:
I’m looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.”
Again with the Yeats poem. I found this written on a new scrap of paper, falling out of Helene’s portfolio.  She was starting work again, and that was good.
“Shall we go to Paris, and get you a new face?” I asked, not really expecting any answer.  “Yes. How’s Tuesday?” she said.  And so the three of us found ourselves on an early morning fast train.

14. A Paris café: faces


15. An Exchange

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
                        from “Thirteen Ways…” by Wallace Stevens

Baby smiled (her famous Buddha smile) at the waiter; he became unsettled and walked away. Meg left a mess of euro coins, completely covering the bill in its little flowered tray. We stood to leave.

The sunlight was weak between the buildings. There was room, just enough, to pass the café tables and chairs – pedestrians had tended not to “see” us.

A tiny dog rushed to nuzzle Helene’s turquoise high heels.  At the end of his leash, a woman looked down, saw the shoes, and nodded to Helene; she was wearing the same heels.  Helene met her eye: a small moment of recognition.

16. Paris, one still moment

That knowing glance, the first we had seen since we arrived; it happens between well-matched women of a certain age.
Have you ever noticed such a thing, among the dahlias?

17. Gone...

And Helene had knelt down quite suddenly and she touched the dog, which responded by shaking everything it had seen or smelt or done in the last few hours over Helene and the dog’s owner. She of the blue heels pulled Helene up and away and left us at the corner….
And they were gone.  I had always thought the city produced no artists. But maybe it does; the city produces layer after layer of stone and solder, the art of pipe-fitting and cobblestone that holds us together, the invisible art of the I-am-no-longer, the art of the not-there.  And this woman, no carpenter, plumber or stone-mason herself, was clearly part of it: Helene was gone.

18. Brown, but in French

Helene needed to be taken in by someone, to be “taken,” as they used to say, “in hand.”  Her face had been starting to fold in on itself.  Now she would become Parisian, at least as much a Frenchwoman as her new friend could teach her to be.
Baby marched us to the Luxembourg Gardens and sat, admiring the parade of dogs and babies.  Meg, tired of people (particularly, at this moment, the French) moved her chair to look at the water and trees. 

19. White, like the sea

Meg and Baby remain by the fountain. They have sat there, of two minds, fora long time.

Paris, admittedly, is immense. And even after several weeks of waiting, neither woman knows what she wants.
Paris made Baby think of the Alexandria of Lawrence Durrell. Beautiful, unfathomable. Meg lay on her back on a stone wall, feet on a blue-green chair, and looked at the white sky, white like the sea. 
And I will stop in again, after Helen has been to see me.