Corita Kent liked to quote a Balinese saying: “We have no art. We do everything as well as we can.” (I would guess that she read it in Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media.) She liked it so much she made it the slogan of the art department of Immaculate Heart College, where she taught for over 20 years. She explained: “You don’t have art off in a little niche someplace. You have no distinction between what is art and what is not art. You do everything as well as you can.”
“The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time.”
It was my pleasure recently to be interviewed by Jocelyn Glei for her podcast, Hurry Slowly. We talked about analog vs. digital tools, how space affects your work, working by hand, and slowing down. You can listen to our conversation here.
Festina lente should totally be a model for our age. I came across it just reading about the early days of printing and Aldus Manutius—the great printer who of course figures in the plot of my book. It’s his motto. I’m sure that you could translate it different ways—but the one I liked best is “make haste slowly.” And I just love it cuz it seems like a contradiction, but in fact it’s exactly right. It seems to fit our time really well, but I stole it from a guy 500 years old. Oh wait, maybe this isn’t new, maybe this is not a new feeling.
[Festina Lente] ought to be carved on columns. It ought to be written on the archways of churches, and indeed in letters of gold. It ought to be painted on the gates of great men’s palaces, engraved on the rings of cardinals and primates, and chased on the scepters of kings. To go further, it ought to be seen on all monuments everywhere, published abroad and multiplied so that everyone will know it and it will be before every mortal eye, and there will be no one who doesn’t hold it of greatest use…
Later, Erasmus writes, “Things that ripen prematurely are wont suddenly to go limp. What grows slowly and steadily can endure.” Echoing Erasmus, about 360 years later, is Henry David Thoreau, in his journal entry for November 5, 1860:
I am struck by the fact that the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think that the same is true of human beings. We do not wish to see children precocious, making great strides in their early years like sprouts, producing a soft and perishable timber, but better if they expand slowly at first, as if contending with difficulties, and so are solidified and perfected.
“Let’s slow down,” Steinbeck wrote in his journal while working on The Grapes of Wrath, “not in pace or wordage but in nerves.”
Some of my favorite writers use older technologies to force themselves to slow down: Lynda Barry used a paintbrush and red ink on legal paper to write the first draft of her manuscript for Cruddy. This page hangs in my bedroom:
“People say, But with a computer you could go so much faster,” says David McCullough. “Well, I don’t want to go faster. If anything, I should go slower.”
“The real issue with speed,” writes film editor Walter Murch in his book, In The Blink of an Eye, “Is not just how fast can you go, but where are you going so fast? It doesn’t help to arrive quickly if you wind up in the wrong place.”
Top image: my friend Marty’s back yard — photo taken in 2010.
Note: This post became a section in my book, Keep Going.
After being a nun in Los Angeles for 30 years, Corita Kent moved to Boston to live quietly and make art. Her apartment had a big bay window with a maple tree out front, and she liked to sit there and observe the tree changing throughout the seasons. (Something much harder to do in Los Angeles, or here in Austin, Texas, where we have two seasons: hot and hotter.)
“That tree was the great teacher of the last two decades of her life,” her former student Mickey Myers said. “She learned from that tree. The beauty it produced in spring was only because of what it went through during the winter, and sometimes the harshest winters yielded the most glorious springs.”
An interviewer came to visit Corita and asked her what she’d been up to. “Well… watching that maple tree grow outside,” she said. “I’ve never had time to watch a tree before.”
I moved to this place in October and the tree was in full leaf then. I watched it lose its leaves. I watched it covered with snow. Then these little green flowers came out and it didn’t look like a maple tree at all. Finally the leaves were recognizable as maple leaves and that in a way is very much how I feel about my life. It seems a great new stage for me – whether it will ever be recognizable by anyone else I don’t know, but I feel that great new things are happening very quietly inside of me. And I know these things have a way, like the maple tree, of finally bursting out in some form.
For Corita, the tree came to represent creativity. In winter, she said, “the tree looks dead, but we know it is beginning a very deep creative process, out of which will come spring and summer.”
Creative work has seasons. Part of the work is to know which season it is, and act accordingly.
People occasionally wonder out loud when I’m going to write another book. “I don’t know,” I say. They ask me what I’ve been up to lately. “Not much,” I say. “Reading a bunch. Raising the boys.”
To an outsider, it sounds like I’m doing nothing. It looks like I’m doing nothing. But I feel very much like Corita: “new things are happening very quietly inside of me.”
It may be the hottest day of summer, but it’s winter in my world. There are processes at work that you can’t see.
Things waiting to burst forth.