A little tip: If there’s a museum show you’re interested in, look for a “family guide” or “classroom guide” on the website. They’re often offered as free, downloadable PDFs and have good images and information without museum “artspeak.”
Here is David Hockney’s Pearblossom Highway, 11-18 April 1986, #2. Several people mentioned that they thought of Hockney when they saw my “Houses for Meg” — a huge compliment to me, as Hockney is one of my favorite artists. His “joiners” are my favorite works of his: huge photo collages made up of hundreds of individual 4×6″ prints.
In this video Hockney talks more about the piece and its origins:
(I had no idea it was originally commissioned by Vanity Fair to illustrate Humbert Humbert’s drive across the southwest in Lolita.)
Here’s a 1988 feature of him returning to the site and showing how he took the shots:
“We need to know what’s going on,” writes Olivia Laing in her new collection of essays, Strange Weather: Art in an Emergency, “but how much detail is useful, and what do you do once you’ve got it?”
To deal with this question, Laing brings up Eve Sedgwick’s idea of “paranoid” reading vs. “reparative“ reading.
“Anyone who’s spent time on the internet in the past few years will recognise how it feels to be caught up in paranoid reading,” Laing writes. The paranoid reader is all about “gathering information,” addicted to the idea that the “next click, the next link” that will bring clarity. But clarity never comes, because you can never, ever know enough to avoid danger and disaster.
Though paranoid readings can be enlightening and grimly revelatory, they also have a tendency to loop towards dead ends, tautology, recursion, to provide comprehensive evidence for hopelessness and dread, to prove what we already feared we knew. While helpful at explaining the state we’re in, they’re not so useful at envisaging ways out.
An “altogether different approach” is “reparative” reading, reading that “isn’t so much concerned with avoiding danger as with creativity and survival.”
A useful analogy for what [Sedgwick] calls ‘reparative reading’ is to be fundamentally more invested in finding nourishment than identifying poison. This doesn’t mean being naive or undeceived, unaware of crisis or undamaged by oppression. What it does mean is being driven to find or invent something new and sustaining out of inimical environments.
I would like to adopt that line as a mission statement: “To be fundamentally more invested in finding nourishment rather than identify poison.”
Because you can identify all the poison you want, but if you don’t find nourishment, you’ll starve to death.
Later in the book’s introduction, Laing says, “I’m going out as a scout, hunting for resources and ideas that might be liberating or sustaining now, and in the future.”
Happy Mother’s Day. Here are 5 of my favorite books about making art and being a mother:
1. Sarah Ruhl, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write
Short essays about making art and raising children, and the interesting ways that one influences and provides insight into the other. Ruhl is a playwright and a mother of three and writes beautifully about art’s need for solitude and quiet vs. the constant interruption of mothering:
There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me… and finally I came to the thought, All right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow. And then I could breathe. I could investigate the pauses.
2. Sally Mann, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs
Mann is that rare master of both pictures and words, and her memoir shows off that mastery: the visual images are perfectly woven into the text to tell her story. The book covers her long, interesting life and career, but a portion of it reads as a cautionary tale about using your children in your art.
Not only was the distinction between the real children and the images difficult for people, but so also was the distinction between the images and their creator, whom some found immoral.
3. Jenny Offill, Dept. Of Speculation
A wonderful short novel about art, marriage, and motherhood that you can read in one sitting. The way the text is fragmented replicates the way you think when you’re a new parent.
About the book she has said:
New parents, but especially new mothers like the [main character], have a set of alarms going off in their heads during the early, high stakes period of trying to keep a baby alive, while dealing with the pleasant lull of housebound boredom. The transcendence is undercut by the tedium. I wanted to get that feeling on the page. The solution I came up with was to describe her thoughts and actions in fragments, so that one would always be dislocating the other.
4. Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
While all these books are in some way about women coming to terms with being both an artist and a mother, there’s the added complexity of Nelson being a queer-mother-artist, and an older one at that:
I’m an old mom. I had nearly four decades to become myself before experimenting with my obliteration.
Another very good (and fragmented) short read with a really smart system of quotation, and an excellent ending.
5. Sylvia Fein, Heidi’s Horse
Fein, a surrealist painter who celebrated her 100th birthday last year with a 70-year retrospective exhibition in Berkeley, took a break in her painting career to write this book and its followup, First Drawings. The book collects her daughter Heidi’s drawings of horses from the age of 2 to 17. (Fein raised her daughter on a horse ranch.)
I don’t know of any other book like this. A weird, remarkable work showing the development of a child’s drawings with a single subject. (More about the book in my post: What pictures of horses can teach us about art.)
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Filed under: parenting
“For me writing has always felt like praying…”
—Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
“Playing is like praying. It’s a sacred act. It shows the ultimate reverence for life.”
—Vince Hannemann (aka The Junk King)
“Why do we pray? We pray because the bell rings.”
—Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun
I realized the other day, after reading Nick Cave’s wonderful thoughts on prayer, that Keep Going contains at least two prayers — the first being The Dunning-Kruger Prayer, the second being the “paper prayer” at the bottom of this post.
I find it annoying how much better Cave is at putting my thoughts into words than I am.
“The act of prayer is by no means exclusive to religious practise because prayer is not dependent on the existence of a subject,” he writes. “You need not pray to anyone. It is just as valuable to pray into your disbelief, as it is to pray into your belief.”
A prayer provides us with a moment in time where we can contemplate the things that are important to us, and this watchful application of our attention can manifest these essential needs. The act of prayer asks of us something and by doing so delivers much in return — it asks us to present ourselves to the unknown as we are, devoid of pretence and affectation, and to contemplate exactly what it is we love or cherish. Through this conversation with our inner self we confront the nature of our own existence.
I grew up saying lots of prayers. The creepy ones (“now I lay me down to sleep…”) and the great ones (“forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”) I was often asked, at family dinners, to deliver the blessing. (I have always liked to talk and spin words and show off my ability to do so.) Of the things I keep in my life from my church-going days, prayer is top of the list.
When I pray, it’s because my world is so beautiful and I want to express my gratitude, or because there is a great disconnect between how my world is and how I’d like it to be. (Almost always both.)
It’s for these exact same reasons that I make art. I see something so beautiful that I want to amplify it, or I see something so broken that I want to repair it.
One of the great disconnects between me and my evangelical dad is that he wants so badly for me to believe, and if there’s one thing I believe, it’s that belief is overrated.
What I believe in is the practice, the rituals, the things to do. I know my dad fears for me and my salvation, but here I am, doing the things I learned from his example and our religion: loving my family and my neighbors as best as I can, working, saying thanks, devoting myself daily to connecting to something larger than myself, etc.
I am no theologian, but what difference does it make what I call it?
This spills over, of course, into my beliefs about art: There are those who say, “You must call yourself an artist first, and you’ll be one.” This does not work for me at all. For me, it’s best to forget the noun completely, and do the verbs.
Because my other belief is that it is through practice that we best come around to belief.
The best proselytizing I ever heard was Mary Karr: “Why don’t you pray for 30 days and see if your life gets better?”
Someone asked me recently if I could boil down my books into one piece of advice. I thought for a minute and said, “Try sitting in the same place at the same time for the same length of time every day for a month and see if something happens.”
A daily devotional.
I love that: “This is what I know how to do.”
There are people flailing around, shouting, “Oh God, what do we do?!?”
There are people shouting, “I know exactly what we should do!”
And then there are people busy at work, whispering, “This is what I know how to do.”
I want to be in that last group.
“A lot of bad art is going to come out of this nightmare — including my own — and that’s okay.”
In Neil Gaiman’s Make Good Art, he wrote:
When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician — make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor — make good art. IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.
A fine message! But I’d also make a plug for something else: when the going gets rough, make bad art, too.
Don’t listen to people who remind you that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague— we’re living in King Lear!
When 9/11 and Katrina hit and she lost a bunch of her close friends, Lynda Barry got really depressed, and all she could do is doodle:
I found myself compelled, like this weird, shameful compulsion to draw cute animals. That was all I could stand to draw. You know, just cry and draw cute animals…dancing dogs with crowns on, you know? And, like, really friendly ducks. But I found this monkey, this meditating monkey, and I found that once – when I drew that monkey, it’s not that it fixed the problem. But it did shift it a little bit, or provide me some kind of relief. And that’s when I started to think, maybe that’s what images do, because I believe in all my – with all my heart they have an absolute biological function…
You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to DO… Try to do some BAD work — the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell — you are not responsible for the world — you are only responsible for your work — so DO IT.
“Good” can be a stifling word, a word that makes you hesitate and stare at a blank page and second-guess yourself and throw stuff in the trash. What’s important is to get your hands moving and let the images come. Whether it’s good or bad is beside the point. Just make something.
(And when that doesn’t work, sit on the damned couch and watch some stupid television until you pass out.)
“It keeps my mind occupied with something positive when I’m not playing music. I get obsessed with painting just like I get obsessed with music and everything else that I care about.”
A couple of his drawings: