I was delighted that the Corita Art Center asked me to talk about Corita Kent and the impact that her art has had on my work. (She was a kind of guardian spirit for Keep Going: I wrote about her in two separate chapters.) In this video I talk about her unique way of looking at the world, her terrific book with Jan Steward, Learning By Heart, her advice to borrow a kid, and the way she thought creativity has seasons:
For the past week, I’ve been making a blind contour self-portrait — drawing without looking at the page — each morning to warm up my diary.
If you look at the images in order, it looks like my face is re-arranging itself. I love that.
Sam Anderson, one of my favorite writers, wrote a wonderful Letter of Recommendation for blind contour drawing five years ago in the New York Times. (How in the hell did I miss that?)
He wrote of his frustrations with trying to draw in his adult life: “The problem, fundamentally, was one of control — I had too much of it, over too tiny a territory, and I wasn’t willing to surrender it. You can’t control your way out of control.”
(I’m thinking of Brian Eno’s control <–> surrender diagram that he likes to draw.)
Then an artist friend suggested to him he draw without looking at the page.
“For the first time in my adult life, I was genuinely surprised by something I had drawn.”
He later discovered that blind contour drawing is an old art school exercise:
Freshmen at art school are forced to draw blindly for hours. It’s the fastest way to break them out of old bad habits, to make them unlearn lifeless conventions. The goal of blind drawing is to really see the thing you’re looking at, to almost spiritually merge with it, rather than retreat into your mental image of it. Our brains are designed to simplify — to reduce the tumult of the world into order. Blind drawing trains us to stare at the chaos, to honor it. It is an act of meditation, as much as it is an artistic practice — a gateway to pure being. It forces us to study the world as it actually is.
I think a lot of people come to contour drawing in Betty Edwards’ classic book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, but I actually prefer the way Kimon Nicolaïdes writes about it in his 1941 book, The Natural Way to Draw. (Edwards sort of waves away Nicolaïdes’ emphasis that “students imagine that they were touching the form as they drew,” but I find his multi-sensory emphasis much more convincing than her left brain / right brain explanation.)
Learning to draw is really a matter of learning to see — to see correctly — and that means a good deal more than merely looking with the eye. The sort of ‘seeing’ I mean is an observation that utilizes as many of the five senses as can reach through the eye at one time. Although you use your eyes, you do not close up the other senses — rather, the reverse, because all the senses have a part in the sort of observation you are to make.
He tells the reader to sit close, learn forward, and sync up a point on the thing being drawn with the eye while simultaneously syncing up pencil to paper. “Imagine that your pencil point is touching the model instead of the paper. Without taking your eyes off the model, wait until you are convinced that the pencil is touching that point on the model upon which your eyes are fastened.” He says only then should you start to move your eye and pencil along the edges of the thing being drawn, slowly, slowly. “Be guided more by the sense of touch than by sight.”
This exercise should be done slowly, searchingly, sensitively. Take your time. Do not be too impatient or too quick. There is no point in finishing any one contour study. In fact, a contour study is not a thing that can be ‘finished.’ It is having a particular type of experience, which can continue as long as you have the patience to look.
If you’re looking for a way to loosen up and bring life to your drawings, try drawing without looking at the paper.
Coming across this portrait by Gjon Mili reminded me of how much fun I had researching Sterne’s work about 5 years ago.
Here’s a LIFE magazine profile of Sterne and Steinberg, where they’re billed as a sort of powerhouse art couple (they later separated, but never divorced):
Here’s a drawing of Steinberg she did in the 40s:
Here’s another photo of her posing for LIFE magazine with with a bunch of Abstract Expressionists, aka “The Irascibles,” many of whom didn’t want her in the photograph because she was a woman:
She outlived every single one of the bastards.
As Sarah Boxer points out, the photo is ironic, because “Sterne thought of herself as an anti-Abstract Expressionist, someone with no use for the cult of personality and personal gesture.”
In an interview with Art In America when she was 96-years-old, she explained that her art was not about ego, but about sharing what she had seen:
All along it was never imagination of self-expression. I always thought that art is not quote self-expression by communication. It is saying, hey, look! Of course, what you react to has to be transformed, without a doubt, or otherwise it is not art, but you do that whether you want it or not. The intention, the purpose, is not to show your talent but to show something. This is very important. Because I grew up and lived in a period of ego, ego, ego. And I was always anti-ego… I was always trying to reduce the ego… I had a very great urgency to show, to share… I discovered things and wanted to share them.
She conceived of her work as an act of pointing:
In our time, artists are inclined to believe that art is like honey, the product of their own subconsciouses, their own minds, and I do not. I see myself as a well-working lens, a perceiver of something that exists independently of me: don’t look at me, look at what I’ve found.
(I’m reminded of Corita Kent, who said, “I just make things I like bigger.”)
As a girl in Romania, she said, “All I wanted to do was stay home and draw and read. I taught myself to read and write when I was five. By the time I was six I read for pleasure. I had already read Dostoyevsky at eleven.”
From an interview with BOMB:
You see, one really doesn’t change that much. In many ways, I have a feeling that I am exactly as I was as a child, when I spent my life reading and painting. And then, erroneously, for a while, I was involved in trying to live like a grown-up, and then I got old, and now I’m back doing what comes naturally. I just read and paint.
She met Antoine de Saint-Exupéry not long after she arrived in New York. He would call her and read chapters of stuff he was working on at 2 or 3 in the morning. When he was working on The Little Prince, he asked her for the name of a good illustrator, and she convinced him to draw his own illustrations.
When they were married, she and Steinberg would cruise around:
We looked at everything, everything. Every Sunday when there was no traffic, we went motoring through New York. I was crazy about New York. Then in ‘47, I went to the country and I discovered agricultural machines. I had a feeling that machines are unconscious self-portraits of people’s psyches: the grasping, the wanting, the aggression that’s in a machine. That’s why I was interested to paint them.
She called herself a “kept woman,” and noted that because she was always married and had money, she didn’t really worry about fame or getting noticed, “I didn’t have to make concessions to be liked. If they liked me, it was OK. I never looked for a gallery.” She explained that staying away from fame was a way to protect her work:
I’ll have some terrific shows posthumously. I want to tell you something also, a little secret. Last summer, I read a book by David Bohm, the physicist, called Order, Science, and Creativity. They gave chimps paint and found that they’d rather paint than do anything else, they even forgot to eat. The only thing that stemmed the flow of the hated word, “creativity,” was when they began to reward them for painting. I have seen in my life again and again what fame does to people and I think that, subconsciously, I blundered to protect myself.
For her art was all about looking:
Whenever you reach a condition of true concentration, you do achieve an anonymous state. And, as a matter of fact, this is true for the onlooker, or the reader of a poem. Unless you can forget yourself when you look, there isn’t a true relationship happening between the work of art and the viewer. The same thing goes for work. The more anonymous you are and the more you lose yourself, the more you add to yourself. It sounds absurd, but that’s the way it really is.
She thought you could find inspiration everywhere:
I heard once about a Yiddish poet who lived in utter poverty and misery, a teenager, who never had seen anything beautiful in his life, and he made splendid poems about vegetables jumping into the soup pot. My idea being that for the sublime and the beautiful and the interesting, you don’t have to look far away. You have to know how to see.
Sadly, by the end of her life, she’d had a stroke and couldn’t see and spent her days in a wheelchair. (“I do my best work now… Only in my imagination!“) She said she had to learn to be idle:
Now that I am so old and incapacitated, I don’t do anything with great enthusiasm. You know, thinking, dreaming, musing, become essential occupations. I am watching my life. As if I’m not quite in it, I watch it from the outside. Because after so many years of working unceasingly, and enthusiastically, being idle is a tremendous effort of concentration and adjustment.
The luck is that there is less energy. That’s a compensation. It makes it easier. Just sitting. I saw peasants in Romania, you know, on Sunday, when they get up all summer at 4 and work incessantly until noon, let’s say. And Sunday they just sit, and their resting is so active like an activity, resting. It’s a beauty to behold, you know. It’s not just doing nothing. It’s being and existing in a certain way. In a way old age is a little bit like that. It has its beauties.
Here she is on the importance of her meditation practice to her work:
I’ve been meditating since 1966… I didn’t have a guru ever, but I read all the books. I gradually worked out my own system. It’s very, very much a part of my life… It has to do with cleaning the lenses, you know. Developing and taking care of your mind. A mind has to be both reflective and transparent. I do not separate any form of apprehending, perceiving and understanding. Let’s say the intellect is like going through the jungle with a machete, and the meditative mind is soaring above the jungle.
Here’s her unique way of keeping a diary:
I started doing one on my floor. I had a large canvas, and I divided it into days and months, and each day I put in one quote I was particularly fond of that I found in a book. And that was the diary. I did it for a year and a half, and then twice for two and a half months. The one for a year and a half is an enormous affair. I rolled it up because I can’t clean it without erasing everything. So now I don’t put it on the floor anymore. It was very good looking.
She was a truly fascinating artist. I encourage you to learn more about her work from these links:
“It’s like, anyone can figure out how to draw something. But it’s hard to tell people how to see something.”
Of all places, I was in a hotel room in Crystal City, Virginia when I heard Jason died. I was trying to decide what to eat for lunch. I started crying. I typed “Taco Bell” into Google Maps. I stuffed a handkerchief in my back pocket and put on my sunglasses so I could keep crying. Then I walked to a mall in Pentagon City.
They say life is stranger than fiction, but life often feels like bad fiction. Stupid, over-the-top, a-little-too-on-the-nose fiction. I hadn’t walked a block when I passed a demolition site. Workers were spraying the building with a big jet of water to keep the dust down while a bulldozer tore it to pieces. The fencing around the site had been covered with multi-colored bicycles and inspirational phrases: “WHY NOT? BREATHE. EXPLORE.” I passed a glorious patch of pansies. (Oh, for crying out loud!)
When I got to the mall, I ordered a Crave Box with a Dr. Pepper and sat down in the food court to eat. It tasted really good. Then I made a drawing.
“If you draw at a Taco Bell, you’re a member,” Jason said, of Taco Bell Drawing Club. “There are no rules. I often draw people, but you can draw whatever you want.”
When I got back to the hotel I was scheduled to do a Q&A in a room full of a hundred people. I told them a short version of what I’m about to tell you:
Jason was one of my favorite artists. He was, more importantly, a total mensch. A sweet, soft-spoken guy. I really liked his work and I really liked him.
His art was the embodiment of so many of the things that I love. He believed in walking around and looking at everything and drawing what you saw. He paid attention. He did that thing that all my favorite artists do: He found magic in the mundane.
He was born a year before I was and grew up one state to the northwest, in Michigan. You could tell he got a little thrill when he drew a celebrity on the street and he wasn’t at all ashamed about it. He seemed absolutely sincere and, well, American to me in his love for things like cheeseburgers and Taco Bell. He wasn’t jaded or ironic. He was enthusiastic. (Attention = love.)
I think of him as a drawer, but he was a writer, too. He knew the power of words next to an image — if you look at his drawings, the captions are really what provide so much of the drawings with meaning. (I loved his long, rambling Instagram captions.)
He’s one of the few artists whose work I happily hang in my office and also in my kids’ room. He seemed to have that kind of child-like spirit that really gifted drawers are able to hold onto. I once complimented him on his drawing, and he tweeted back, “I feel my drawings have gone downhill since I was about five.”
The last time I saw Jason was in the summer of 2018. I was in New York for no more than 24 hours, and I randomly bumped into him while browsing the gift shop at the Whitney. I remember he apologized about how sweaty he was from walking around. “Otherwise, I’d give you a hug!”
We only got to visit for a few minutes and then I had to hop a cab over to Brooklyn to get my picture taken. (I don’t remember this part, but my diary from that day says: “I told him I loved seeing the world through his eyes — he seemed touched that I said that.”) I had no idea until a few days later that he’d drawn this picture of me:
It made me so happy to think of him out in the world with his Strathmore pad and a Uniball, scratching away, maybe stopping for a slice of pizza. I can’t believe he’s gone. My heart goes out to his family and friends. I’m so grateful for his work and I’m glad to have known him.
Last week I read about Richard F. Shepard, a writer and editor at the New York Times who took interns and new reporters at the paper on epic tours of New York, teaching them how to investigate and navigate the city.
He said you can’t really figure out the city unless you travel on foot. Here’s what he wrote in his book, Going Out In New York: A Guide for the Curious:
There is no one real New York. It is more of a collage of bits and pieces, each with its own character, often absolutely contradictory to all others and yet purely New York… The only way to savor these varied panoramas is to stroll through; you can see them by car but you can only feel them on foot.
He also said you have to look up:
Look up, he said. Look especially at second-floor windows above storefronts. That, he liked to say, is where a lot of absorbing action takes place. Why would a perambulating soul wish to miss any of it?
Filed under: walking.
I was intrigued by Gretchen Rubin’s Met Museum Experiment, in which she plans to visit the Met every day of this year that she’s in NYC. (She lives within walking distance.)
Her experiment and her goals — to waken her senses, to learn about art, to explore the building space, to see more clearly, though she doesn’t feel she’s a visual person — got me thinking about how I like to visit museums.
Here are 3 things I do that make my museum experiences much richer:
1. Draw, draw, draw! When you try to draw something, even with just a rough sketch, you really have to look at it, and you notice all kinds of things you don’t by just standing around gawking at it. I always have a pocket notebook and a pencil or two with me. (Many museums don’t let you use pen or marker in the galleries.) I stand and copy the art I like, often just swiping a detail here and there from different pieces. (I write more about drawing and “slow looking” in chapter 5 of Keep Going.)
2. Enlist a small child to guide you through the museum. Kids are alive to the world in ways we aren’t as adults. They’re also lower to the ground, so their perspective is literally different. (More on this: “The 5-year-old docent” and “Borrow a kid.”)
3. Don’t read the label before you look at the art. Watch people the next time you’re in a museum gallery. They almost always look at the labels first! Don’t do this. Use your own eyes first. Let yourself be drawn towards what is genuinely interesting to you. Spend time looking at a piece without having someone else’s words messing with your looking. (More on this in Edward Tufte’s essay, “Seeing Around.”)
I walked past this handicapped spot yesterday and thought of the “Make it art” assignment from Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing:
Think then of some regular walk or drive or ride you experience often, or even that you’re experiencing for the first time. Imagine yourself a curator. Decide what, among the things you notice, you might declare public works of art.
Perhaps a disheveled pylon marking a street flaw that ought to have been fixed by now. Maybe a post that seems to be a lingering remnant of an otherwise departed fence. Possibly even a child with a piercing stare.
Grant yourself the superpower of making “art” wherever you go, and see how that changes what you perceive.
Art is everywhere, if you say so.
(More in his newsletter.)
Related: “Borrow a kid.”
Look at something long enough and you start seeing it everywhere.
With all the lofty nonsense that gets spoken about art, it’s so easy to forget its simplest purpose: To change the way we see.
So, you watch an Andy Goldsworthy documentary, and pretty soon you’re finding beauty in the cracks in the sidewalk. (Above.)
Or, you see the stone mosaics of your friend John T. Unger and, once again, you find beauty on the sidewalk. (Below.)
Or, you remember Rauschenberg when you spot a tire track in the street. (Below.)
Claes Oldenberg said he was for art that helped old ladies across the street. I’m for art that helps them look down and notice stuff while they’re crossing!
This excerpt from Aaron Rose’s documentary Become A Microscope shows Corita Kent with her students, using what she called “finders” to learn how to see with fresh eyes. “You have to look at the world [in] small pieces at a time,” she said. “Look at it. Just a small part of the world.”
The Finders are described in the wonderful book based on her teachings, Learning By Heart:
[The finder] is a device, which does the same things as the camera lens or viewfinder. It helps us take things out of context, allows us to see for the sake of seeing, and enhances our quick-looking and decision-making skills.
An instant finder is an empty 35mm slide holder. Or you can make your own by cutting a rectangular hole out of a heavy piece of paper or cardboard—heavy enough so that it won’t bend with constant use. You can then view life without being distracted by content. You can make visual decisions—in fact, they are made for you.
When I visited the Corita Art Center yesterday, I was delighted to find out that they use Finders as their business cards: