Friday, September 30, 2011

Art and Health

In her biography of Matisse, Hilary Spurling relates how Matisse tried to help a friend who was sick: he took one of his bright paintings around to the person's apartment in Paris to hang on the wall, so that the illness would be washed away by contemplation of Matisse's glowing colours.

We have learned since then that art can indeed have a therapeutic effect, particularly in the making of it. There's a lot of real research to back that up. At the same time, that anecdote about Matisse is a little bit of evidence of the artist's monumental egotism: he truly could not think of a higher gift to anyone, even on their sickbed, than to own one of his pictures, even for a short while.

I am struggling at the moment with a torn muscle in my back, or rather the after-effects of an injury sustained a year ago. A lot of calcium has built up around the tear, which I'm working to eliminate by having a chiropractor adjust the spine, having a masseur give me deep-tissue massage, and other things. After one such session yesterday, I came away feeling so much better, and so grateful for the relief, that this story about Matisse came into my mind, and I thought: yes, art can heal the spirit, but if there's something physically wrong with you, there is nothing that can replace the positive effects of what a doctor can do for you.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Non-toxic printmaking

I'm still recovering energy from 3 days and 20 hours of teaching. Today's cross-link is to a blog that has tons of information about non-toxic printmaking: link here. That is, printmaking free of all the nasty, carcinogenic chemicals that I used when starting out in the 1990s. There are also links to the sites of very fine printmakers who employ the cleaner methods, such as Elizabeth Dove:

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Literary Series

My blog recommendation for today is "The Temple of Air", by writer Patricia Ann McNair (disclosure: she's my wife). That's the name of the site, which is named after her hot new book of short stories (which just got a great review in Booklist). On the blog page of the site, Patty has been running a series for several months entitled "A View from the Keyboard". She asked writers to send her a picture of their writing space, to write something about it, and to provide an excerpt from some writing in progress. The latest view from the keyboard is from writer Michael Downs.

If you're a writer and want to submit to the series, here is the link for the guidelines.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Book Arts Tutorials

Today's link is to a blog that contains lots of links to tutorials for making artist's books. There are no fancy pictures, or flash video. There's nothing 4g about it: just lots of great information about making book bindings, casings, boxes, stitching, accordion books, tunnel books, flag books, star books. I've used this resource myself countless times over the past few years. Link here.

And here is a picture from an album of handmade books by Geraldine Newfry that I found on the TJBookarts site:


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Monday, September 26, 2011

Teaching week

I'm teaching five classes in the next three days, each nearly four hours long. If I want to keep up the daily blog discipline, it'll probably have to be with short entries this week. So maybe what I'll do is a form of guest blogging: each day I'll highlight another artist's blog post, and just hope that at the end of the week, anyone who reads them will remember to return here!

First, have a look at writer Katey Schultz's blog (link here). I interviewed her at the end of July on the occasion of the sixth anniversary of her blog. She has continued to blog about her fascinating journey through the summer, which took her from teaching writing to students at the Interlochen summer camp, to a short co-habitation with a painter in Houston in which they worked on a daily text and image-based piece, to a current writer's residency in the Texas Hill Country.

Apparently this is the view of the bison ranch she's staying on:

Her blog is always interesting to read, and I'm sure her latest adventure won't disappoint.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Meditation on an installation by Deborah Doering

Web-talk number 83 in the series discusses an exhibition by Chicago artist Deborah Doering, who was the subject of the first interview I posted on this blog at the start of 2010. The installation is on display now until the end of September 2011, at the Paul Galvin Library, Illinois Institute of Technology (click here for details).

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Lucerne Project in Book Form

First of all: I've noticed that the most-read post on this blog is something I wrote last November about seeing an Anish Kapoor sculpture in London, which I coupled with a funny anecdote about said artist, told to me by a friend of mine. Which is weird, considering that most of my posts this year have been about my own work.

Which brings me to this. I took photos of all the pages from the 100-page accordion book, together with eight of the texts from the imaginary Lucerne diary, and sent them to the online print-on-demand company, to be printed in book form. I did that last week, and the first copy arrived today. I'm extremely pleased with the result:

The cover is an image that wraps around from front to back. Then inside, I arranged the images two to a page, broken up every ten pages or so by text:

Copies will be on display in the gallery in October, and the book will also be available then for purchase from Blurb.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A new painting by Goya

In 'The Guardian' yesterday, there was an article about a new painting by Goya, discovered by x-ray analysis of an existing painting. The subject is thought to be Napoleon Bonaparte's brother.

The link to the full article is here:

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Interview with artist Carol Setterlund

"Puccini's Paralysis", mixed media on panel, 42" x 36"

Carol Setterlund is a painter and sculptor who I got to know on Google Plus. Her work in both media is striking, unified by a preoccupation with texture and material as the embodiment of thought. Renowned art historian Donald Kuspit put it best, when he said of Carol's work: "She is a primitivist with a sophisticated awareness of modernism. The strength of her figures is tempered by the intimacy of their texture, making them all the more dramatically expressive and 'touching.' They are symbolic abstractions that seem profoundly realistic."

Philip: You describe yourself as a self-taught artist. How did you find your way to becoming a sustained practitioner of art?

Carol: Mostly obsession. Persistence. Drive. Along the way I’ve had a certain amount of ambition, which has helped sustain. I am having to come to terms with the ambition these years. But the obsession continues. I think the need for discovery is a prime motivating urge. Another motivating factor is the need to communicate. Once in a while there is a satisfaction that comes in finding something unknown to me and in sharing what I hope might be even a tiny bit unique with some part of the world outside myself.

"Ajax the Great," wood/bolts/acrylics, 84" x 26" x 19"

Philip: You are a painter and also a sculptor. What makes you go into your studio and decide to make one or the other?

Carol: I think the two activities come from different places and two different needs and the decision is not always entirely conscious. What pulls is what is most elusive to me at the time. I think much of my practice of sculpture attempts to connect in some non-mystical way with our ancestors. With the sculpture I feel I’m moving more outward and also back to my unsophisticated roots. The painting is more introverted, more trying to connect to myself and also to something more current. In both painting and sculpture I’m also looking for what might be universal.

There’s another odd physical factor that enters into the decision. If there’s a sense of congestion in my chest or gut, I’m probably heading for the sculpture studio. If the congestion is in my head, I’m probably going to find myself staring at panels and jars of paint.

"Season of Repair," mixed media on panel, 30" x 24"

Philip: I see different influences in both your 2-d and 3-d work, though clearly you also have your own visual language. How aware are you of this question of influence, and how do you work with it or against it?

Carol: I’m not very aware of influences usually. The ‘question’ of influence is another thing entirely. I’m afraid of influences. I’m afraid the discovery I’m after, that short moment of wonder and awe, will really belong to someone else. Still, I’m certain that I have been influenced in sculpture by tribal sculpture, by Baselitz, his sculpture, not his painting, and by German Expressionists. I love Giacometti, though I don’t recognize his influence on my work. Another sculptor said to me once that he thought of Giacometti when he saw my work, but Giacometti’s drawings rather than his sculpture. I was pleased, and though it had not occurred to me before, I understood what he was saying.

My influences in painting are probably all over the place, though, at this point, I don’t recognize them. Self-defense, I suppose. I can be inspired by something perfectly done and perfectly presented. But I suspect the influence with the painting is more from movements, some kind of cross between minimalism and expressionism.

Philip: The titles of your paintings appear to be based on associations suggested by the rhythm of the picture, while the titles of your sculptures often refer to classical mythology. What strikes you about your own process both of making the work, and naming the work?

Carol: I said this above, but again, the sculpture process is more bodily prompted and, I think because it’s sculpture, so received by the viewer. The sculptures are about us and our ancestral heritage. As I have said in my artist statement on my website, I’m looking for an archetypal representation of humanness, which hopefully answers your question about the sculpture names. I don’t usually know where the names on the paintings come from, but, yes, I think you’re right that they are often suggested by the rhythm of the picture. Some of the paintings are more connected to the sculptures than others and some of these paintings have names that imply a connection to the past. These particular paintings, I feel, in retrospect, might be the language of the sculptures if they could talk. With all the names I strongly don’t want to give any specific clues or pin the works down to single interpretations. I’d like my work open to whatever response it might illicit no matter what it is to me. And often I can’t and don’t want to pin down my own response.

"Hero", wood/bolts/acrylics, 66" x 14" x 14"

Philip: As a user and sharer on Google Plus, what can you say about the role social media play for you as an artist, either personally or professionally?

Carol: Making art is lonely. Shows only last a certain amount of time. And money from sales is instantly gone. It’s great to be able to share what you do with people who would never otherwise see it. And it’s just as great to see the work of people you didn’t even know existed. I don’t know that there has been much, if any, professional gain but there is quite a large amount of satisfaction

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Monday, September 19, 2011

In the Studio: Day 66

Covering the base for the clamshell box, which will house the 100-page accordion book. Using burgundy coloured linen, to echo the Swiss flag (The Lucerne Project, remember?):

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Schnabel Good? Or Schnabel Bad?

I'm co-teaching a class at Columbia College Chicago this semester called Story in Fiction and Film International. In Wednesday's class, we showed "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", directed by Julian Schnabel (who is American, but the film is in French). I first saw Schnabel's paintings in a London gallery in the 1980s. Since then, he's made three films -- "When Night Falls", "Basquiat", and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly".

Personally, I think he's a far better maker of films than he is of paintings. What do you think? Is this:

"Untitled (Ross Bleckner), 1985
... really better than this:

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In the Studio: Day 65

Actually, this was a studio day, but I didn't go to the studio. I spent a lot of time preparing image files of the 100-page accordion book for the Lucerne Project, which I am sending to be printed using the on-demand publishing site, This is so that visitors to the exhibition in October will be able to see the prints from all the pages. The real accordion book will be displayed accordion style, and so not all of the images will be visible.

This means that for the the first time, all the pages of the book have been photographed and digitized with a consistent tonality, size, etc. Here is an album of all 100 pages. Page size: 6" x 4.5". BFK Rives printmaking paper, light grey. Paper-litho transfer prints of found internet images, drawings. All of the pages have between 3 and 6 prints on them.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Artist-Writer-Artist: Linda Peer

"How I got where I am today", (bird, side view), mosaic sculpture, 37" x 30" x 14"

Linda Peer is a sculptor and a writer, who teaches part of the year in the Fine Art Department of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. I encountered Linda in an unusual way. When I was in Utah recently, I stayed for two nights in a place called Torrey. More or less at random, I went into a bookstore/coffee house to get breakfast. Linda was at one of the tables, working on her laptop. We were introduced by the owner of the coffee house, and after a few minutes during which I discovered that Linda was a sculptor who had recently begun writing, I asked if she would be willing to talk about that process for my blog. Here is the interview that resulted from that chance meeting in the canyonlands of the west.

Philip: You made art (and taught at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC) for many years before you started writing. What caused this need to express yourself in fiction?
Linda: My perspective on fiction is not that I particularly desired to express myself in it or through it, but rather that I decided to bring the tools of fiction to bear on the same old questions. As a matter of fact, there are many things I don't like about writing--for instance, you have to manipulate darkness and light in a much less graceful way than in visual media. And writing does not use up enough energy. Sometimes writing is so physically repressing and restraining that I want to get up and jump around the room. Sculpture efficiently burns intellectual and emotional energy created by working in the physical furnace of the body.
The question I might ask myself is this: Why was I frustrated with the tools I was using, namely sculpture and some painting?

Maybe I care too much about sculpture. I did not seem to be able to satisfy myself. I would work in a certain way, develop, create some excellent works in that form, and then it would go dead for me and I would make some terrible pieces. I would give it up, fiddle around, go skiing, hike, get another idea and gradually develop that, do some danged good work in that form, and then the accursed thing would go dead on me again! You get the picture. I could see the process, the boom and bust cycle, but I could not cure it. In the vast world of sculpture, where you can always learn more and develop more, I was stuck. I mean, Lucas Samarus can work that way and create fabulous work--it is not impossible--and I would be Lucas Samarus if I could.

If you'd like to see who did the sculpture I would have liked to have done, take a look at Tim Hawkinson. His stuff is so grand, so silly, so vulnerable, and so being-like that it pierces my heart.

Besides that, to make things worse, and frustratingly, I'd wandered off into making photographs of sculpture, people dressed up as sculpture, and non-sculpture, as part of the process. Photography was just as unsatisfying physically as writing and had other problems besides.

So I took my toys: my explorations of identity, my formal concerns and obsessions, and my questions about what identity does to us (I mean, how much of Donald Trump's persona is caused by his belief that a guy like him must have a full head of hair?), and I decided I would not play any more and went home. Well, I went to the other side of the studio and started writing. Oh, there was a practical issue I should mention: I'd begun living in Utah and was still teaching in NY, and when I was in the East I was vagabondish and did not have a studio.

For me, all fine art has a density that the less serious versions of the same forms do not have. You go to a museum with your art buddies, and you talk and argue about one aspect of a work, and then another. Let us say we are looking at Kara Walker. I say: Wow, the use of scale, of big and tiny, is witty and gorgeous. You say: Look at the delicate beauty of the negative spaces. I say: Yes, in work that is really not nice, a piece that refers to coercive and manipulative sexuality. You say: Yet the negative spaces give this buoyant, lyrical energy to the work. I say: Then there is the way the viewer recognizes the stereotypes represented, and the thought of the scariness of being stereotyped: you are just a piece of meat.

This does not happen with work of less density and seriousness. What could be more wonderful? Yes, other things are as wonderful, but what could be more wonderful?

That is what I am after, that fine-art density. I want to see it, I want to do it, and truth be told, I do not care how I get it.

excerpt from "Foreclosure with Deer" (read the full story here)
I wait silently behind the door until the pounding stops. The cop shouts, "Mr. Smith, this is officer Dwight Longwood." He waits. "Your Execution of Eviction notice has been in place for forty-eight hours. Tomorrow morning we will remove you from the premises. At that point, you will be under arrest." His officious tone softens. "It would be best for you to leave of your own accord. There is really no other option."
He sounds like a young guy who has not yet suffered disappointment, a guy who is fortunate enough to have a livelihood that has not been eviscerated by the recession. My deer rifle rests in the corner by the door, loaded. Out the side window I can see that the lilacs in the overgrown yard next door have opened. I cannot see the for sale sign, but I see one farther away, neat and stark in the tangled grass. I go upstairs, watch the cop get into his car, open the window, and inhale the scent of sun-warmed lilacs. I have nothing against him. I think half the lawns in the development have gone to meadow. On this sunny cloudy afternoon, I like the way the tall grass and early flowers sway, like something from a time before lawns, when people homesteaded here.
Back downstairs, I see that a young buck, naked of antlers of course, is poking in the apple tree, hunting for wizened fruit. He's just doing his job. He finds an apple and plucks it delicately. For once I have the time to pay attention.

Philip: Your short stories have a strong sense of first-person voice and a dramatic sense of scene. Do you feel any similarity between those elements in your writing and your sculpture, or are they very separate and different?
Linda: I love teaching 3D design: you help students learn how to break things down into parts so they can manipulate them for their own purposes. I just talked about Kara Walker, who uses really simple design elements to great effect. When I began to write, I saw it the same way: what are the parts, the tools at hand? How can I use them? I learned to telemark ski the same way. So I see sculpture and writing as very parallel and similar, and I see complex athletic activities the same way, and I see my own mind and its character in all of these. For me, these realms have similar structures, and they often have similar lights and darknesses.
When I started to write, I began with a novel and then wrote shorter and shorter pieces until I was writing micro-fiction. I was attempting to manipulate as few variables at one a time as possible so that I could learn how each one worked. I kept thinking, “If I could just figure out how to do X, if I could just figure out how to do Y, then....”

"Rolling", wood, 36" tall x 5' 6" x 3' 4"

Philip: Much of your 3-d work has playful qualities, a close attention to texture and colour, building into unexpected and surprising forms. Again, what parallels/differences do you see between the way you construct a sculpture and a story?

Linda: I hope my fiction is playful, too. If I shoot you in the heart, I hope I will entice you to smile first. Figuratively speaking, of course.
The realm of the physical, the realm of texture, color and shape but also of ski aerials, light on NYC windows, and mountain lions, has to be approached in a different and indirect way in writing. This is an ongoing and incomplete thought, and I can't say more about it, except that I would like to show experience in the realm of the physical. Thinking back to Donald Trump, he is visibly rejecting the way he is embodied, right? And all his money does not change that for him. What does that say about identity?

Philip: Have you noticed any change in your art-making after you return to it from the writing?
Linda: I get to miss some of the unbearable parts where everything I make sucks?
What is happening is sort of the opposite: I desire visual elements as parts of stories these days. I have a story with ads in it, and I want an art-director friend to make the ads. I've been making (very rough) story boards for stories and then I write from them. I took video of the sunflower jungle in our Utah yard on a windy night. The motion of the flower heads looked like something under the ocean, and I want to mix that video with a story.

Philip: Going forward, what developments do you imagine for your art-making and your writing?

Linda: I don't know about specifics. But I imagine my work getting better, that is, more satisfyingly fine-art like!

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Food stylist

It's been a busy weekend, with my wife Patty's book launch on Friday, and another reading from the book at the Chicago Way reading series on Sunday night. So all I've got for a blog post today is this piece of art that I made with my pub meal leftovers:

I think I'll call it "Monkey Masterpiece". Materials: bun, french fries, olives, pickle, lemon, tomato sauce. Dimensions: 5" diameter. Price available on request.

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Saturday, September 10, 2011

My wife's book launch

I've posted about this in other places, but I'm so incredibly proud of my wife Patty after the launch party on Friday evening for her short story collection "The Temple of Air" that I had to write something here, too.

More than seventy people came along to Women and Children First, the independent bookstore around the corner from our apartment in Chicago. And not all of them were Patty's friends, family, colleagues, or ex-students! This was a much bigger than average crowd for this venue, and in anticipation of this the bookstore had ordered more than double their normal consignment of books from Elephant Rock Books, the publisher of TTOA. Kathie Bergquist gave a wonderful introduction, and then Patty read one entire story, "Just Like That", which is one of my favourites from the collection. I heard her read it before another audience two years ago, and the same thing happened: people become spellbound, and then there's a moment towards the end when one of the characters reveals a piece of shattering news, and you can sense the entire audience catching their breath in a moment of collective, anticipated grief.

By the end of the evening, the store had only two books left. About 25 people came back to our apartment for champagne and cupcakes afterwards, and we toasted a great inaugural success for a brilliant writer and a wonderful collection of stories:

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Friday, September 9, 2011

Thursday, September 8, 2011


I have an injured ligament in my lower back that's inhibiting my life somewhat at the moment. I almost didn't post anything on the blog today, despite my nearly two-year long practice of trying to do exactly that. Then I thought of something relevant that I could write. I asked myself the question: are there any good representations of physical injury in the history of art?

There are images like this, by Pieter Breugel the Elder:

But great though this is, the injuries are not being presented entirely from a feeling of sympathy. Believe it or not, the caricatured style of the faces conforms to a long tradition of only representing peasants as comic creatures, for the amusement of wealthy early Renaissance art buyers. Even if there is sympathy for these poor mutilated fellows, it's not of the sort that is saying "this must change." Whether they were born this way or were mutilated by work, life, or war, Breugel came from a class and a society in which people had a place, a station in life. Some men were born kings, some were born without legs. If you were one of the latter, too bad. The proper response for the able bodied and wealthy was not "social revolution now", but "remember how quickly fate can change a life." A matter of private morality, not public change.

So what I want to as is: can anyone can think of a representation of physical injury in art that is done from a sympathetic point of view?

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Artist-Writer-Artist: A Future Book Introduction (ii)

Part 2

At the end of part 1, I wrote about my novel being taken on by a London literary agent, and I ended with the question: "So where did it all go wrong?"

There are two reasons, I think. One: I didn’t revise enough. Living as I do with a teacher of creative writing, who revises her stories many times, sometimes over a period of years, I realize now that I fell prey to the illusion that one or two edits was enough. Two: I didn’t try hard enough. Ms. Clarke pushed the manuscript, and apparently it came close to being published at one point, but eventually she returned it, while leaving the door open to future submissions of new work. I did indeed write a second novel, but that got rejected too. At that point, I decided that maybe I was a writer, but just not quite good enough of a writer to actually get anything published. Three: I got accepted to a Master’s program at an art college.
Let’s go back in time again, to those teenage years. I was a precocious kid, and in addition to developing a love of reading and of writing about reading, I had a talent for drawing and painting. My art teacher at that Catholic school was grooming me to apply to London art schools. Of course, there was no guarantee that I would have been accepted. But when my English teacher told me that he would work with me and get me into Cambridge, he seemed so certain (he was as good as his word, too), and his offer also chimed in with my James Joyce/writing life fantasy, so I chose the literary path instead of the visual art path. All through my time at Cambridge, I attended life drawing classes, to keep my hand and eye in shape, as it were. After college, I continued attending life classes, and painting in a studio in the house that I was renting. I even had shows in small spaces in provincial English towns. Nothing sufficiently original to excite the art world, but enough to get me into the art college that I applied for, just on a whim, during the year that I was waiting for a final decision on the manuscript.
From this moment, when people asked me at parties, “So what do you do?”, I replied, “Artist.” Since I graduated from art college, my art career, such as it is, has been firmly within the realm of expression through the tactile and the visual. Paintings, prints, installations, books. Ah yes, books. If people really pressed me hard, I might tell them about my past ambition to be a writer — you know, a real writer, with books and everything. But I preferred to talk about what I had done in the visual arts since the mid-nineties. I only reconsidered this a few years ago when someone pointed out to me that my work had a strong narrative element that never quite went away no matter how ‘abstract’ I thought I was being. I resisted this at first, because I was still influenced by the anti-narrative bias of my art college years. The idea of narrative content in art was deeply despised by teachers and students alike, and I largely accepted this orthodoxy, and succumbed to the belief that art had to have meaning and relevance to contemporary society and certain big ideas, and never stray over the line into the ‘lower realm’ of mere ‘illustration’. I guess we were all afraid we would end up making Norman Rockwell paintings. But in the end – specifically, about six years ago – I began to investigate more deeply this narrative element in my work. How was it there? How did it manifest itself? If I felt the need to tell stories, how best to represent them? In words, or visually? A combination of both? How far to go in the telling: more toward events, or more towards suggestion?
So it is that I have arrived at this point. I know I will not be the new James Joyce, nor will I publish works of fiction that are admired for their linguistic felicity and that win prizes. I know greatly talented writers, prize-winning authors. I’m married to one of them. I know that they can do things that I will never be able to do. But my dual track creative life, my perhaps 70/30 split of the visual and the written, has led me to much of what concerns me both creatively and professionally today. I feel qualified to co-teach classes at Columbia College Chicago that are mainly attended by fiction writing students, classes in which we explore story and scene in drawing and writing. (This semester I am teaching the same class with students in the Film and Video department, too, as a fresh way for them to approach story in their work).
Writing this blog almost every day is a way to write, too, at least an outlet for the words, a place for the words to go. And it’s because I have had this experience of working for prolonged stretches of time with both words and with pictures that I am now exploring, in the Artist-Writer-Artist series, how other practitioners do both, how they reflect on the commonalities between these apparently very different creative acts. I undertake these interviews because I’ve always loved hearing artists talk about their art. I am also aware of something that I heard one of my colleagues in the fiction writing department say: that when we ask other writers questions about their work, we should keep in mind how those questions might be asked of our own work. So bear that in mind if you’re reading these interviews and essays: when I ask the questions, I am also partly addressing them to myself.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Interview with writer Patricia Ann McNair

The subject of this interview is my wife, Patricia Ann McNair. We met at an artists' and writers' retreat in Vermont in 2000, and it was partly hearing her read her fiction before an audience that led me to fall in love with her, and with the idea of perhaps moving to the USA. The story that I heard her read that night, in a converted church on a balmy late summer evening, was "The Temple of Air." Now that story and ten other interconnected stories have been published in a collection of the same name, available from the publisher, Elephant Rock Media (click here for link), and a certain online outlet I would encourage you only to use as a last resort. In the week of the official book-launch and amid a flood of interview requests, I used my insider influence to ask Patty to answer a few questions about her book, her writing, and even her creative explorations in other media.
Philip: On the surface, the stories in ‘The Temple of Air’ deal with average people in an average US town. But the language of the stories constantly arrives at these extraordinary moments of revelation, whether through violence, illness, love, or the longing for faith. Were you aware of this as you wrote them?
Patricia Ann McNair: Well, thanks for that take on the work. It is interesting to consider what I was really aware of while writing and what I discovered after much of the writing happened.
I have always been—what, attracted? compelled? lured?—by and to moments that might be considered both brutal and beautiful in literature. The work of Hubert Selby, Jr, comes to mind. Raymond Carver. Most of us are average people in average lives in average towns, and so I knew that it was these stories, our stories, I wanted to write and I have always been drawn to. But in those average lives we are often struck by some very hard or violent moments, or find ourselves longing and yearning. When you run these things next to one another (average lives, violence or pain, yearning and longing,) when you braid them together, they become beautiful, don’t they? They evoke a complex emotional response that is something other than simple boredom or shock or desire on their own. Perhaps it is like using primary colors that are on opposite sides of the color wheel or something, when you put them together they create something extraordinary, arresting.
I, like everyone, have had to face some rather painful things in my life—death, prolonged illness, various devastations—and while these moments happened, during them, I felt mostly the hurt. But afterwards, with some distance on the situation, I look back at those moments as extraordinary and important experiences that actually held beauty in them. I won’t go into detail here, but I am certain that this response is not unusual. And so it is those things I hope to capture in the “extraordinary moments” of the story (as you so kindly refer to them.) And yes, I think much of this does have to do with language, with image, with rhythm and metaphor. The rush of words in these moments is something that is both unintentional and completely intentional on my part. It usually starts with the impulse of telling such a moment—say, when a baby is accidentally dropped from the top of carnival ride or a woman strikes a deer with her car in the middle of the night—but once I recognize that that sort of telling has taken over the writing, I try to make the most of it that I can. I try to capture the breathlessness, the curious thing that happens with time in a moment of tragedy or fear, the relief that comes with a kind of release these moments often create.
Philip: Most of these stories were written over a long period of time and published separately. At what point did you realize that they could form a linked collection?
Patricia Ann McNair: I have long been interested in the linked collection and the novel in stories as a structure. I admire it in books like Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are my Weakness, Olive Kitteridge, Winesburg Ohio, Dubliners. Mostly it is the emphasis on place that I find compelling in these sorts of collections. In some ways, the stories that I wrote were always set in one place—a sort of composite Midwestern landscape where I’ve lived at various points in my life. And when the place became clearly the same to me, the other connections started to emerge. In some cases it was the recurrence of characters that started a story going for me, in other times it was a similar emotional response. In an earlier draft, this book was supposed to be a novel-in-stories, but I found myself trying to work the overall plot too hard and not spending enough time with the individual episodes. So it shifted. I suppose I knew for certain that it would be a linked collection was when I found the character of Sky in four of the stories I’d written (sometimes masquerading under a different name, but clearly the same guy) and found Michael in two. The rest was sort of mathematical—finding the “x” in each story problem, maybe. 

Philip: What is it about the American Midwest that attracts you for story material? And how does a story get started? 
Patricia Ann McNair: I am a Midwesterner born and bred. I live—as you know—just a few blocks from the hospital where I was born, and have lived in Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan at various times in my life. I find comfort in the Midwestern landscape, its gentleness, its green, its familiarity and also its surprises (hills, yes hills!, creeks in the center of a field, wildlife in your backyard.) It is what I know, and I am one of those writers who starts at least somewhat from something I know. An image I have seen, an emotion I have felt, a situation I have been part of, a story I’ve been told. It is important to me, at least in part from my training as a student and now teacher in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago, to fully see the moments of story I write. So it is from seeing something—literally or in my mind’s eye—that story is most often born for me.
Philip: Your parents were both journalists, and one of your brothers is the poet laureate of Maine. Was it inevitable that you would become a writer?
Patricia Ann McNair: Perhaps so; even though I was unwilling at first. I wanted to be an actor. Then I wanted to be in broadcasting. But the thing is, in both of these early pursuits—more like dabblings, really—I ended up leaning on writing. I liked to write monologues and tried my hand at plays when I first went to college. And I loved to write good, strong pieces for my radio classes. And when I had the chance to take a very strong, process-based fiction writing class at Columbia College, I felt as though I had been waiting for this sort of thing all my life. The writing won out.
Philip: You have been a teacher of creative writing for almost as long as you have been a published writer. It’s a common question, but it needs to be asked: does the teaching help or hinder your creative process?
Patricia Ann McNair: Yes. The answer is yes. Teaching helps my writing. Teaching hinders my writing. Mostly the hindrance is a time thing—effective teaching takes much more time than simply reading a manuscript and writing comments on it—and I always write much less when I am teaching than when I am not. But when I am lucky enough to have incredibly talented and diligent students in my classes, it makes me want to write more. It is like when I read a book I love; I want to share in the delight of its creation. And this, having strong students, happens far more frequently than not. I feel lucky that way. 
Philip: The Fiction Writing department of Columbia College Chicago, where you teach, has a very specific pedagogy called the Story Workshop approach to the teaching of writing. Can you point to elements in your own writing, or your creative process, that come out of the Story Workshop approach?
Patricia Ann McNair: I talked a little about seeing in a previous answer, and that is essential to the Story Workshop approach. There is also a very strong emphasis on voice. Now I know a lot of folks talk about voice in writing, usually in different ways from one another. But it is my own voice—my voice as a writer that is similar to my personal voice, my storytelling voice—that I try to connect to when I write. It comes from my background, my education, my experiences, my reading, my daily practice of communicating effectively. And it also comes from the stories I have to tell and the willingness to tell them.
The Story Workshop approach to the teaching of writing relies on the premise that we all have stories to tell, and that we all have some facility at the telling of them. And the workshops are process based, generative more than critique based. There is also a strong emphasis on audience (another widely used word—meaning various things to different people) in these workshops. Meaning not so much “who are you writing this for?” as “Is your story coming through? Have you engaged the audience?,” and the like. Very connected to the authenticity of oral tellings, but heightened by using written language and its intricacies. The best way to understand this process, really, is to take a workshop through the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago.
Pages from Patricia Ann McNair's journal/sketchbook
Philip: Have you ever used visual art (drawing, painting, other media) as an extension of your writing? As a break from your writing? If so, what do you notice about your process in each activity? What do you notice about your writing after you return to it immediately after drawing?
Patricia Ann McNair: I have always been a doodler. Scribbling in the margins of my journals, drawing little drawings in my correspondence. I suppose I first really started to think of the connection between drawing and writing when I was teaching writing to little kids, working in Chicago Public Schools as a writing consultant. Children are fabulous storytellers, totally innovative and uncensored. But until they develop the skills to get their actual word and language writing up to the sophisticate level of their oral storytelling, they are limited in what they can get on the page. Not so, really, in drawing. They can draw a moment of story in very, very complex ways. I began to draw my own story moments with the kids, and still do that when I need to figure out something in my writing—or to get something started.
So drawing as a means to create story has become be part of how I think about writing. You call it “expressive mark-making,” Philip. A phrase I think is perfect. This interplay became even more interesting to me as I started to do research on writers who drew, and visual artists who used text. This led to Journal and Sketchbook: Ways of Seeing—the class that you and I teach together at Columbia College Chicago and at various adult workshops and art centers. We use drawing as a way to unlock things, further visualize them, understand them in ways that sort of transcend language. Color, gesture, spatial relationships. All things that find their way into good writing, but by exploring them through visual art making, I have come to consider them more fully and also on a more intuitive, instinctual way—all part of the creative process.
And as part of this exploration I have begun to take some art classes. Printmaking, ceramics. I don’t yet know for certain what the ultimate effect of this will be on my writing, but the deep creative consciousness I find doing these practices has to be good for something, don’t you think?
Philip: Finally: are you working on a novel? 
Patricia Ann McNair: “Finally” as in “Has she finally stopped talking”? or “The last question, finally”? Either way, the answer is yes. Most of my work right now is this sort of thing, though. Work on the newly released book. Talking about it, writing about it, that sort of thing. But in the meantime, my story wheels are turning on their own back there, running over the ground I’ve already planted: another story set in New Hope, the Midwestern small town of The Temple of Air. A story about a conflict that arises between an evangelical, home-schooling family and their across-the-street neighbors who happen to have an immigrant father. It is about rumor and accusation, about fear and faith, about guilt and grace. Or at least I think it is about those things.  Talk to me again in a few months.
Read excerpts from "The Temple of Air" here.

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Monday, September 5, 2011

Artist-Writer-Artist: A Future Book Introduction

Part 1
I always wanted to be a writer, really. 
I especially wanted to be James Joyce. I read “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” for the first time when I was fourteen, and while I didn’t understand all of it, I was deeply affected by it, and if I could point to one book that set me on the path towards going to Clare College, Cambridge, for a degree in English Literature, this was that book. Some of the book’s effect on me was due to the way in which it was written; some of it was due to a large degree of identification. I can still remember the way certain scenes sprang vividly to life as I read them: the argument at the dinner table between Simon Dedalus and Dante; Stephen Dedalus’ being punished at school for a misunderstanding; the great fire-and-brimstone sermon delivered by one of the priest-teachers. I, too, was a Catholic, and a second generation descendant of Irishmen, and while the atmosphere of my Catholic comprehensive school school was not nearly as terrifying and oppressive as Clongowes, there were still enough similarities for me to identify strongly with Stephen’s trials, and his eventual rebellion against his upbringing. In fact I tried to stage my own rebellion by carrying “A Portrait” conspicuously around at school, which led to my being hauled up before the headmaster, who warned me against “this evil man” and took the extraordinary step of calling my mother to scold her for allowing me to read such filth. (To her great credit, my mother told him that he should be grateful that someone in his school was actually reading books.)
All through my adolescence, I dreamed of being Stephen Dedalus/James Joyce. I, too, wanted to read everything, from literature to philosophy. I wanted to read in many languages. I wanted to attend an old university, like Trinity College, Dublin, and argue ideas on the steps of ancient buildings and force my peers to bow down before the power of my intellect. I wanted to spend years on writing a novel, like Joyce, honing and refining every phrase, every sentence, until the book was finally published, hailed as a masterpiece, and women started throwing themselves at me like rice onto a wedding party. Actually, it wasn’t even the women part that I looked forward to. I was thrilled by the idea of writing, of words, of having a thought or seeing a scene in my mind, and then having the words come out, flow forth onto the page, and somehow add up to something that embodied the thought or depicted the scene, in beautiful and original language.
By passing the entrance exam for Cambridge and going ‘up’ to ‘read’ English for three years, it seemed like my dream was on the way to being realized. (Actually, that’s a very Americanised way of putting it. In England, we don’t say ‘follow your dream’: we use the much more accurate ‘fulfill your ambition’). Let me speed time up a bit and go to the years immediately after I graduated. As I said in a previous post, I began working as a technical writer and a copywriter, which paid the bills without demanding too much of my other mental capacities. I don't disparage the work, however: it still demanded the writerly disciplines of reconsidering material, finding the simplest form of expression, editing and rewriting, shaping the material for an audience, and working to deadlines. In the evenings, I started what I considered 'real' writing — short stories, radio plays (intended for BBC Radio), a novel. I wrote 500 words a day, sometimes more. In 2007, I saw an advert for a novel-writing competition, and I began revising the novel with the intention of submitting it. I missed the deadline, but I pressed on to the end. I felt in a position to send chapters out to publishers and agents. I got a lot of rejections, some of them better than others, until one day in 1989, a literary agent by the name of Serafina Clarke called me, and told me that she loved the book, and would I come to London so we could talk about what to do next.
It turned out that Serafina wasn’t just any old agent. She worked on her own (and still runs what’s referred to as a ‘boutique agency’), but she had a powerful list, which included Booker Prize winner Pat Barker. I went to meet her in her office, which was the front room of her home in west London. We had pizza and went through a bottle of red wine. If a film were ever to be made about Serafina's life, I imagine she would be played by Vanessa Redgrave - very elegant, polished fingernails always holding a cigarette, very beautiful despite her age. She said the book needed some work, but that it had a lot of promise, and she wanted to submit it to some publishers, and to enter it for a first novel competition. During the course of the afternoon, she said something to me that sort of knocked me sideways. “You are a writer.”
So, where did it all go wrong?

Part 2 follows on Wednesday.

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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Working on an animation

We're spending the weekend at our farmhouse near the Mississippi. Here's a picture of me working on a stop-motion animation (painted stroke by stroke with watercolour), using my improvised work-table.

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Friday, September 2, 2011

Artist-Writer-Artist: dm simons

dm simons is a visual artist who also writes poetry. In an exchange of correspondence about this interview, dm wrote to me: "I hope my ramblings are not too oblique for you". On the contrary. It was clear to me as I read dm's responses that he had a very personal style, and a manner of writing, in which I wanted to intervene as little as possible. So, for your edification and pleasure, here is a conversation with dm.

Philip: You are primarily a visual artist, yet you also write poetry. Have you always done this, or did it start at a particular time?

dm: My whole life is been one of images/words, a bifurcation where they stand in for one another, exist with the other, without boundaries and are the same thing, become the same thing; each letter a character/figure, each word an image; images given to me, to us, that is all of us before we were born, in other words we yearn for that which we don't know but know. It is the yearning that is important, the thinking, not the either/or. For me they are the same thing. To be quite honest from the age of four or five words grabbed me first, images, perhaps a year later. I always thought or preferred writing to painting. Obviously, drawing as writing obsessed me, though even as a teenager I thought—as well as my teachers—that I was destined to be a writer. I don't think in time, I think in space, a sensed space. If this double life, this genesis of a double sun began, it began as the space of being alone, that special cocoon of breath and discovery, a decontaminated space.

"Bitter End', 2009, 57" x 66", pastel on sunset

 "Burnt tongue, singed words
Thoughts numbed, a grief worn hard
Of sparse woven thorns, draped 
Shroud snagged on threaded hopes 
Needled regrets of memories woven
Unraveled breath flickering, frost sparks
Gulping long ago threaded clumps, found
As this grey-green phlegm is spat from
the clotted lung, the rasp-burned throat
Splattered upon the cold gray slab. Scream 
Not heard long, that voice known,
Oval blushed lips pursed darkly open
A quivering body, quaked still. Quiet
Breathing to the gut, slaking of the old,
it falls;
A new season"

dm simons

Philip: What does writing poetry offer to you that drawing doesn't? Or vice versa?

dm: Poetry and painting/drawing are similar. I have been referred to as a conceptual painter—perhaps. The emotion and idea are foremost in my head. Each one of us has "habitus" which, though we are part of a field, makes us a bit different. I am interested in space, rhythm, words that convey what an image might not, an image that might have more effect than a word, to remove the choker from my throat, to breathe sighs of whispers, to get at the pith in another manner, to pick at it with another instrument, to pull apart the scars of an alleged truth. (I don't make art: I tell lies because the truth hurts.) Poetry, if that is what it is, is that instrument. The homology is the instrument for both, bleistift und feder, pencil and pen, the same instruments write, the same instruments draw, the difference is the intent, the shape, what we recognize as drawing, what we recognize as poems, again not much of a difference. To pick at the core and to orchestrate. Morty Feldman said that to be a good composer, one has to know how to orchestrate. Sorry to be oblique, but I find no difference. As I am working on a picture my journal is open on a table two feet away, waiting always waiting. And if I am in the journal writing the picture is always waiting. (We are a thread hanging on the barbed wire of lies.) The composer Henry Cowell, who was the inventor of tone clusters, arrived at his "Eureka" moment because of frustration. He had a sound and an effect in his head which he could not duplicate in the usual manner at the piano, which usually is the composers sketching pad. In this maddening few seconds of being boulder blocked, he smashed his forearm on to the keys, and that boulder was smashed into so many shards—that was the sound and effect needed. He also passed on the use of chance and the preparation of instruments to two of his students: Lou Harrison and John Cage. Poetry from a forearm smashed into an instrument, one never knows.

Philip: Your drawings have an arresting, somewhat unsettling quality - both closely observed, yet bleached out, as if the object or the memory of it is about to slip from view. How much do you guide or give free rein to the drawing once you embark on it?

dm: I think hard and long about each piece. Before I start a new picture I have to know the path needed. Lately there is a pitch dark nothing that has held me captive, perhaps, over the last two years. It is the dark space between the door and its jamb. So that is the pith. My work is not picture generation, it's probably a tangent or post picture-generation, trope. I look at thirty or forty images, whittle down the concepts to a few images, and surprisingly pick one that I was not intent on producing. Then I hit it, hit it hard, I wipe out all visual noise in the ground, focusing on the image, I want to make sure of its ambiguity, make sure that it is a fragment of a story, (It needs a better story). When Dante wrote his "Inferno" only fragments of Homer's Odyssey existed and it fueled his imagination into what rings of Hell to place some of Homer's protagonists. It was not till perhaps a hundred years later that all of Homer was discovered. In the same manner by dwelling on the image, that is the image as fragment, it compels the audience to use their imagination/memory to fill in the cracks, the missing story, in the same manner as a the restoration of an eighth century B. C. Greek Crater or Kouros that has been filled with plaster. I am not trying to be clever, I am interested in a certain emotion, a vibration, an echo of pre-social thought; again, all images, gestures, expressions and attitudes are a given, they are exhausted, impotent and need to be decontaminated, rehabilitated, resuscitated, perhaps given a vitality, a new agency within another world, universe or multiverse. I am just trying to tell a better story. The story is complete before I begin, the picture tells me what is needed, through a compression. I adapt to what I am told, what I am given. At the end it is a compromise and the story is a synthesis of the senses and body. There is never a mind body duality, the double sun becomes a double sun. The cleavage between the two suns is the interest. "One does not discover new lands unless one suspends sight of all shores for an eternity"—Vilas-Mattas.

"Crack, snap, woosh, thud
I didn't see it , I heard it
up those Inwood hills
a hollowed echo
if a tree falls...
I heard it, that last crack 
hard winter, packed snow, 
soggy Spring, heavy rain
trees will fall
some harder than others 
buried by Summer
splintered silence
Fall coming
I keep climbing"

dm simons

Philip: Similarly, if I asked you to state the first thing you notice about your creative process when you are writing, what would that be?

dm: Space, compression, fragmented language, sound, color and effect—all orchestrated loosely sort of the way Ferneyhough composes ("The New Complexity") but with purpose, with thought. It is funny with writing: at first uncomfortable with what is there, thinking it junk-pile scrub, I open the journal a day or two later and those lumps of coal seem to sparkle, it takes me a while to see beauty in what I thought was plumber's lead, days before. Within three or four pages if I can glean a few sentences or paragraphs, compress them into what I was feeling, what I was after. It is not easy, a tortuous path. Peripatetic in a certain way, a wending perhaps, but so it is with the picture-making as well. All the stories have been warehoused in my brain, dusty, waiting, when young, with impatience, a nervousness to get on with it, to overcome a hyper-inertia to let it out, not as "diary-puke" but as an existence that reverberates with the essence of what I am and have been. Perhaps now more than before that the time for sharing is now.

"-icide", 2008, 30" x 44", charcoal/pastel with stumping

Philip: You use words in your drawings and paintings, too. In what way is this similar or different to your creative writing?

dm: Again, there is no mind-body duality. They exist as one thinking. After "Vertigo Moon" in 2010, I decided not to include text in my work to see what happened, to see if the work echoed and felt the way I wanted it to, it did and that freed me, to realize I wasn't trapped, no one wants to set a trap and become lunch, at least that is what I wanted to be sure of, that I had not set a trap for myself. In the middle of the year I did "Homage to Roberto BolanĂ²", written in my own hand "There is no turning back..." and at the bottom a writing/drawing poem from his "Savage Detective". Roberto, in my opinion is the best writer of the last twenty years. That writing/drawing poem itself is an homage to the great poet Nicanor Parra. The next piece used the complete short story of Augusto Monteroso, a tremendous writer, "When I awoke the dinosaur was still there". It is supposedly the shortest short story in literature. I forgot the name of the piece, but it has a Concord jet in blur-motion on a blue field. Again the text is in my own cursive. I am giving away my trade-secrets here, ha,ha,ha, however what it reveals is that everything is connected, my painting, my writing, my reading, my love of language and images, my intent to tell a compelling story, to keep things interesting, fragmented, spatial. "Vertigo Moon" uses my own writing, which is obscured in the piece. I will send you the poem separated from the image so you may read it. The poem was written to go with the image. There is no difference in my writing as writing, and my writing though truncated with images. They exist as a whole. For example, "They'll come for you, they'll come for you" stands alone, however it works with images. I used it in three different images. It is not the length or number of words or sentences, it is not if they were intended to stand alone or incorporated into a picture, it is the potency that counts, the story, the tragic, the fear, the anxiety, the whole ball-of-wax as language, words and images, words without images that matters. I love it all.

Philip: Do you ever write immediately after working on a visual piece? Or pick up the pastels immediately after writing? If so, what takes your attention about your process once you cross over into the other medium?

dm: All the time, as I said my journal is opened a couple of feet away from the picture I am working on. I usually take a break in the evening and go to my favorite coffee shop on the Bowery at Bleecker and jot down ideas, for paintings (my good friend Grace Gaupe Pillard refers to pastels as dry painting, and she is right), and scrubs and scraps of ideas that might or might not be fodder for poems. Sometimes I can write it on the spot, usually not. Respite is necessary between all endeavors: I run 6 to 7.5 miles a day, four days a week. Again different rhythms, different activities but of one piece, of one mind, the cleavage as space but attached to the soul. Process is never important to me, the reference is too much about craft or being a good mechanic. I have great respect for mechanics and craftspeople but I am interested in the concept, the idea, not mediums of process. In fact I confess to be awful at process. These things called pencils and pens and pastels; bleistift, feder und Pastell happen to work for me at the moment, they feel good to me, suit my intent, pastel is fast, ideas flow, pen and pencil are fast words flow. Ideas flow. I also have a 1947 Olivetti Studio 44 which I pull out once in awhile, it is hard on the digits but is not digital and which when working produces interesting things. Eventually we have to cross the Styx, when that time comes hopefully we can let go, allow the change and row over to the other side, if we only would understand life and death are of the whole piece, there is not them and us, either, or; social patterns, patterns of process, patterns of thinking are not that different from one people to another, from one continent to another or from one way of making things to another. It is what you have in your thinking, your encyclopedia of mark making, yes technology and tools might look like they change process but only for the job at hand and the hand at job. It is the attention to the intent that is pertinent, the process takes care of itself.

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