Friday, May 22, 2009

mood indigo


From the porch; from the hayrick where her prickled
brothers hid and chortled and slurped into their young pink
lungs the ash-blond dusty air that lay above the bales

like low clouds; and from the squeak and suck
of the well-pump and from the glove of rust it implied
on her hand; from the dress parade of clothes

in her mothproofed closet; from her tiny Philco
with its cracked speaker and Sunday litany
(Nick Carter, The Shadow, The Green Hornet, Sky King);

from the loosening bud of her body; from hunger,
as they say, and from reading; from the finger
she used to dial her own number; from the dark

loam of the harrowed fields and from the very sky;
it came from everywhere. Which is to say it was
always there, and that it came from nowhere.

It evaporated with the dew, and at dusk when dark
spread in the sky like water in a blotter, it spread, too,
but it came back and curdled with milk and stung

with nettles. It was in the bleat of the lamb, the way
a clapper is in a bell, and in the raucous, scratchy
gossip of the crows. It walked with her to school and lay

with her to sleep and at last she was pleased.
If she were to sew, she would prick her finger with it.
If she were to bake, it would linger in the kitchen

like an odor snarled in the deepest folds of childhood.
It became her dead pet, her lost love, the baby sister
blue and dead at birth, the chill headwaters of the river

that purled and meandered and ran and ran until
it issued into her, as into a sea, and then she was its
and it was wholly hers. She kept to her room, as we

learned to say, but now and then she'd come down
and pass through the kitchen, and the screen door
would close behind her with no more sound than

an envelope being sealed, and she'd walk for hours
in the fields like a lithe blue rain, and end up
in the barn, and one of us would go and bring her in.

(1970) William Matthews

American illustrator, painter, and printmaker Campbell Grant was born in 1909. After grad- uation from Oakland High School, he entered the California College of Arts and Crafts. In 1930 he received a scholarship to attend the Santa Barbara School of the Arts where he learned the techniques of color woodcut from Frank Morley Fletcher.

Following his studies at Santa Barbara, he spent twelve years in Hollywood at Walt Disney Studios as a story director and animator. Campbell exhibited with the Painters and Sculptors of Los Angeles in 1934 and the Public Works of Art Project that same year. 1 Allen W. Seaby was also a student of Frank Morley Fletcher.

Sunday, April 5, 2009



Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear
one more friend
waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it,
for a while lost
in the ignorance of loving

someone or something,
the world shrunk
to mouth-size,
and never seeming small.

I acknowledge there is no sweetness
that doesn’t leave a stain,
no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet ....

Tonight a friend called to say his lover
was killed in a car
he was driving. His voice was low

and guttural, he repeated what he needed
to repeat, and I repeated
the one or two words we have for such grief

until we were speaking only in tones.
Often a sweetness comes
as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what it means to be alive,
then returns to its dark
source. As for me, I don’t care

where it’s been,
or what bitter road
it’s traveled
to come so far, to taste so good.

Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn, “Sweetness” from New and Selected Poems 1974-1994. Copyright © 1989 by Stephen Dunn.

Monday, March 2, 2009

welcome to brittany

well, i should have turned left, going south towards france's west coast, instead of right, which sent me towards the north. brittany, home to gauguin and the nabis, rather than giverny, home of monet and the impressionists.

additional american (and other) artist colonies sprang up on the breton coasts, just as they had in giverny, and though there are conflicting reports as to whether dow and gauguin (who moved further away when so many americans arrived) worked together or never met, dow spent several summers in pont-aven.

while it was easy to see the jap- anese influence on the impres- sionists developing further north, from dressing their models in kimonos with parasols to the frequent diagonal structure, it was the artists in brittany that felt the japanese inspiration on another level.

painters from around the world spent time in the pont-aven region. when dow was there, he hung out with benjamin harrison, arthur hoeber, and charles 'shorty' lazar. the paintings of the breton group of painters "showed an overall simplification, a highly expressive use of colour, and an intensely spiritual subject matter."

the americans, and the other painters in the region, including the nabis, found inspiration for these leanings in the japanese prints then flooding france. dow himself took further inspiration from the nabis, whose style and philosophy involved the stripping away of irrelevent details, the flattening of space, and an indulgence in color.

the spiritual underpinning of all this involved the seeing of the direct thing, its essential nature, the idea of it. and of course once we get into ideas, of anything, we must include the artist himself, for we are now discussing personal perception.

i could begin to list all of the americans who returned to the US from brittany, having imbibed much of the same set of values just as i could list all of the europeans they encountered there, but i'd rather deal with them in an ongoing way when i get past this lengthy chapter.

instead, i want to look at the differences at the hearts of these two communities, the differences between gauguin and monet. in both cases we are talking about light, and about the approach to abstraction, modernism: monet shattered the light while gauguin worked toward sweeping away everything but light and color.

monet's philosophy was this: I want the unobtainable. Other artists paint a bridge, a house, a boat, and that's the end. They are finished. I want to paint the air which surrounds the bridge, the house, the boat, the beauty of the air in which these objects are located, and that is nothing short of impossible.

gauguin, instead, looked for something more internal; to him, going to brittany represented a return to nature in its purer form, closer to the earth itself, than existed in the rest of france. he wanted truth.

robert hughs, of time magazine, has written of gauguin, If there is an absolute originality in Gau- guin, it lies in his color, for which no amount of reproduction prepares you. It is saturated, infinitely subtle, full of the stateliest assonances and most risky contrasts; its range of emotional suggestion is immense. 1

and, Unlike the Impressionists, Gauguin did not paint what he saw: he chose to see what he wanted to paint. And his ideas on what was paintable grew out of other art—from the broad color patches and rhythmic line of Japanese cloisonne and wood block prints, from rural Breton sculpture and the flattened, monumen- tal figures of a French artist he greatly admired, Puvis de Chavannes. Style absorbed him — the pervasive feedback of art style into nature. Even the fierce colors which scandalized some of his contemporaries were meant to be remote from nature." 2 and still, a man of deep spirituality.

two artists, two schools of artists, both on a search for truth (what else is there?), one by exploding illusion, the other by scraping it away. two paths leading to the same point. i find it unsurprising, given what we've learned about dow, the man, which route he chose.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

remembering beauty

after all is said and done, and after i have considered dozens of different ways to conclude this series, i finally realized that it all comes down to focus. it had come to pass, perhaps as a form of hand-holding to the industrial revolution, that beauty was best seen and reproduced as the result of considered focus.

dow unfocused. and then quantified.

leading up to the close of the 19th century, a confluence of forces brought about widespread changes. the beginning of trade with japan was virtually simul- taneous with what is called the 'second industrial revolution,' which introduced mass- production, electricity, and motors. japan quickly availed itself of these developments, while the west availed itself of what japan represented as an antidote to them.

against the face of precise reproduction, dow, and, as we've seen, others around the world, began to unfocus. to stop seeing the trees. to find a harmony in what one saw. dow taught ways to consciously transfer that harmony to paper.

rather than a study of sunlight and shadows, dow taught seeing light and dark, and holding them in balance. rather than teaching rigidity and repetition, he taught flow.

by using japanese prints as regular references, dow man- aged to communicate the principles he was teaching by sight as much as by word; the learning was imbibed rather than concentrated upon. the asymmetry, the elimination of detail, the looking beyond the surface to reveal the essence: it was all there, as instruction but more, as inspiration.

but what of this explains dow's extraordinary success as a teacher, as a teacher of both students and of teachers as well? it was something more than can be gained by quoting his books or reading his letters. in order to begin to understand, we must unfocus ourselves.

we must let ourselves feel the deep spirituality of the man behind the teachings, the spirituality that can see a derelict boat in a river and understand the nature of all he witnesses. what, after all, is 'seeing' but 'not limiting,' or 'not defining'? is not the only way to see to allow what's in front of you to be?

for john ruskin, william morris, arthur wesley dow, and so many others, design reform was never on a physical level alone. like the japanese, and like so many cultures before them, spirit was seen as integral to nature and to humanity. to impose confinement on either, for whatever reason, is to lose them. to remove spirit from art is like removing air from the breath.

it's to suffocate beauty.... until one remembers.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009



The sun was gone,
and the moon was coming
Over the blue Connecticut hills;
The west was rosy,
the east was flushed,
And over my head
the swallows rushed
This way and that,
with changeful wills.
I heard them twitter and watched them dart
Now together and now apart
Like dark petals blown from a tree;
The maples stamped against the west
Were black and stately and full of rest,
And the hazy orange moon grew up
And slowly changed to yellow gold
While the hills were darkened, fold on fold
To a deeper blue than a flower could hold.
Down the hill I went, and then
I forgot the ways of men,
For night-scents, heady, and damp and cool
Wakened ecstasy in me
On the brink of a shining pool.

O Beauty, out of many a cup
You have made me drunk and wild
Ever since I was a child,
But when have I been sure as now
That no bitterness can bend
And no sorrow wholly bow
One who loves you to the end?

And though I must give my breath
And my laughter all to death,
And my eyes through which joy came,
And my heart, a wavering flame;
If all must leave me and go back
Along a blind and fearful track
So that you can make anew,
Fusing with intenser fire,
Something nearer your desire;
If my soul must go alone
Through a cold infinity,
Or even if it vanish, too,
Beauty, I have worshipped you.

Let this single hour atone
For the theft of all of me.

Sara Teasdale

© Sara Teasdale 1920
from Flame and Shadow; Macmillian, 1920

Monday, February 16, 2009

dow's COMPOSITION part 2


Great architects and designers were not the only ones to use this simple line- idea; mere doing of the work recommended here will be of little value if the only thought is to get over the ground, or if the mind is intent upon names rather than principles. The doing of it well, with an artistic purpose in mind, is the true way to develop the creative faculties.

These tracings from a variety of compositions, old and new (No. 36), show that this combination was chosen either to express certain qualities and emotions, -- majesty, solemnity, peace, repose, (Puvis de Chavannes) or be- cause such a space division was suited to tone-effects (Whistler's Battersea Bridge), cut a space finely by landscape shapes; or to color schemes (Hiro- shige). These should be copied exactly in pencil, then drawn enlarged. Find other examples in museums, illustrated books, or photographs, and draw in the same way.

puvis de chavannes himself played an interesting side-bar role in dow's life. according to dow's biographer johnson, puvis was seen by both dow and fenollosa as "the fusion of occident and orient. they discovered him for america and had much to do with his obtaining the commission to paint a series of murals in the boston public library.

"puvis came to america and to boston where he was received with cool and unintelligent criticism." dow even wrote a letter to the boston evening transcript, on jan. 2o, 1893, protesting that reaction. i am trying to find that letter....

all well and good... but... i could find no record of puvis coming to america (please feel free to correct me!), and i found this, written on the occasion of weir's death: Mr. Hassam's intimate remini- scences of Weir bring to notice many interesting traits and incidents. One of his anecdotes seems to amount to a claim that Weir was the first man to suggest the commissioning of Puvis de Chavannes to paint the mural decorations for the Boston Public Library. It appears that Weir, being in Durand-Ruel's Paris gallery, one day, met Stanford White there. "McKim's doing a library for Boston," said White. "Who's the man to make a big mural painting?" "Why, Puvis, of course," exclaimed Weir. They went from there to the Place Pigalle, found Puvis de Chavannes, "and we know the rest. He painted for Boston one of the most beautiful decorations in the world.'' 1

and this: Puvis was first approached with a request to paint murals for the staircase of the newly built Boston Public Library in 1891 Despite the generous terms offered ... complete freedom in the choice of subject matter, as much time as he wished and a vast fee of 250,000 francs ($50,000 far in excess of any other commission he received ... it took two years of patient negotiations to overcome Puvis misgivings about painting murals for a building he would never see. A plaster model of the staircase was made for him and samples of the stone used sent so that he could establish a colour harmony. In Puvis own words he chose to represent in emblematic form, the ensemble of intellectual riches, united in this beautiful monument .

The first and most impor- tant of the panels Les Muses Inspiratrices, was exhi- bited at the Salon du Champ-de- Mars in 1895 before being shipped to Boston. Over the next year or so it was followed by eight smaller panels depicting La Poesie des Champs (Virgil), la Poesie dramatique (Aeschylus), la Poesie Unique (Homer), L Histoire, L Astronomie la Philosophie, La Chimie and la Physique. As the last of them crossed the Atlantic, Puvis remarked that he felt like a father whose daughters had entered a convent. 2

did puvis visit boston? who were more important in getting his work there? just think -- in 110 years, when we try to figure out who said what to who, given that we have immediate 24-hour reporting and commentary, we still will be no better in learning who was right.

EXERCISE: To discover the best arrangement, and to get the utmost experience in line and space composition, the landscape should be set into several boundaries of differing proportions, as shown in the examples, keeping the essential lines of the subject, but varying them to fit the boundary. For instance, a tree may be made taller in a high vertical space than in a low horizontal space, (No. 37). After working out this exercise the pupil may draw a landscape from nature and treat it in the same way. Let him rigorously exclude detail, drawing only the outlines of objects.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

dow's COMPOSITION part 1

i will jump right in, giving you a taste of the book that changed art education in america for at least half a century. dow's teaching philosophy involved using examples from other artists, not his own. when i can find it i will show the original on which his example is based.

The designer and picture-painter start in the same way. Each has before him a blank space on which he sketches out the main lines of his composition. This may be called his Line-idea, and on it hinges the excellence of the whole, for no delicacy of tone, or harmony of color can remedy a bad proportion.

A picture, then, may be said to be in its beginning actually a pattern of lines. Could the art student have this fact in view at the outset, it would save him much time and anxiety. Nature will not teach him composition. The sphinx is not more silent than she on this point.

He must learn the secret as Giotto and della Francesca and Kanawoka and Turner learned it, by the study of art itself in the works of the masters, and by continual creative effort.

If students could have a thorough training in the elements of their profession they would not fall into the error of supposing that such a universal idea as Beauty of Line could be compressed into a few cases like the "triangle," "bird's-wing," "line of beauty," or "scroll ornament," nor would they take these notions as a kind of receipt for composing the lines of pictures.

Insistence upon the placing of Composition above Representation must not be considered as any undervaluation of the latter. The art student must learn to represent nature's forms, colors and effects ; must know the properties of pigments and how to handle brushes and materials. He may have to study the sciences of perspective and anatomy.

More or less of this knowledge and skill will be required in his career, but they are only helps to art, not substitutes for it, and I believe that if he begins with Composition, that is, with a study of art itself, he will acquire these naturally, as he feels the need of them. Returning now to the thought that the picture and the abstract design are much alike in structure, let us see how some of the simple spacings may be illustrated by landscape.

No. 34 is a landscape reduced to its main lines, all detail being omitted. Make an enlarged copy of this, or design a similar one. Then, in the attempt to find the best proportion and the best way of setting the subject upon canvas or paper, arrange this in rectangles of varying shape, some nearly square, others tall, others long and narrow horizontally as in No. 35. To bring the whole landscape into all these will not, of course, be possible, but in each the essential lines must be retained.

The art of landscape painting is a special subject, not to be treated at length here, but I believe that the true way to approach it is through these or similar exer- cises. First study the art, then apply it, whether to landscape or any other kind of expression.