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It's just about time to untangle the story of "Hurrying",
my first successful work of art, painted in Mrs. Powell's
kindergarden class at age 5.
In keeping with what I have learned about memory retrieval, I am going to unpack the story slowly over a few days and from a few angles. I don't have much to say about the artistic aspects of what is clearly a child's painting, but the experience of making and showing this piece was eye opening. I have given the work considerable thought over the years; especially in light of my choice to be an artist. What stands out for me are the lessons I learned in understanding my self and my relationship to the things I make; although I still enjoy just looking at the piece and think, as an artwork, that it holds up well.
"Hurrying" (1968) was made with tempera paint on newsprint, using only the colors yellow and purple, and is approx. 30" X 22". It hangs on my parents bedroom wall in a thin yellow frame and white matte. It has appeared in two exhibitions, one in 1969 and the other in 2005; both venues were in my hometown.
Some backstory to "Hurrying":
It's November 1968 and my family is spending Thanksgiving week at my grandparents's house in New Orleans; a highlight of the year for me. I loved New Orleans and all my family there.
Thanksgiving dinner started when my cousins arrived. I remember a wonderful, warm light pervading the room. The peak of the evening for me happened early, during the time before dinner when we had hors d'oeuvres: little pickles, fancy crackers, and (later I found out) caviar - I was told I would not like the taste. : ) I remember we had chopped up egg and making a cracker with just the egg whites.
I felt sophisticated being in New Orleans, with plenty of good food, and my mother was at ease and with her family in the house where she grew up - she was home - and the cousins we had over were like brothers and sisters.
My family projected to me an intellectual and refined air - connoisseurs - real taste that comes from one's experience - and somehow this created an attractive energy.
Relevant to "Hurrying" are the picture books my cousins brought to share that were purchased on a trip to England. These particular books must have come from a museum. I remember that they were filled with black and white images, line drawings of complicated mazes in various irregular shapes, including castle shapes. Cool, thin black lines on white paper, interesting shapes, embedded illustrations, and the whole thing was a puzzle you could solve.
In that supercharged otherworldly atmosphere, filled with sensory pleasures, my five year old mind was blown with the beauty and intricacy of these maze images. That evening I received an unconscious understanding about the vast potential of images to layer meaning: historical, graphical, logical, aesthetic, etc; and that clever combinations of these layers could shift my world view. Results from being opened by those maze books first appeared about a week later in "Hurrying" and I can assure you that the understandings are still unfolding today.
It happened sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 1968. I was back from New Orleans and in kindergarden. The school had big easels, smocks, long brushes crusted in tempera paint, and sheets of newsprint. I was put in front of an easel without instruction and allowed to paint whatever I wanted. I felt the stress of staring at the proverbial blank canvas when the images of the mazes came rushing back to me. I had never been so certain of what I wanted to create. My mind went into overdrive with the excitement and planning. I knew what to paint! Perhaps this energy and the stress relief that accompanies mental clarity were what helped solidify this experience in my memory.
There were a few colors, primaries and secondaries, and the brushes were waterlogged and sloppy. I remember strategizing. With no black or white paint, I intuitively chose the largest value range available - purple and yellow - plus I loved the color combo - purple and yellow were two thirds of the colors of Mardi Gras, the colors of LSU, my father's alma mater, and later the colors of my high school.
My plan was this: I would put down yellow as the path of the maze and then fill in around it with purple for the walls. I also knew somehow that I had to draw the whole maze in yellow first because if I put a purple wall in the wrong place I wouldn't be able to cross it with yellow paint; the yellow was too thin to opaque the purple.
Then I began painting and immediately realized the yellow was very hard to see by itself against the newsprint. I was in the flow and pushed on. I drew the paths of the maze in yellow with the brush, doing my best to see them by looking from various angles. Then I cleaned the brush, took up the purple and begin fill in in around the yellow lines. When I was almost done and could see the maze taking shape, I realized to my horror that one section of the yellow was isolated. I would have to cross the purple with the yellow! I finished the purple, cleaned the brush, waited as long as I could for the paint to dry and then made a short stab of yellow over the purple to finish the painting.
You can still see this line in the painting - it is along the bottom just left of the center. The purple showed through as I expected which kind of ruined the perfection of my original vision but surprising things came from my willingness to make that move. First, the mark looked good on its own. Second, seeing that it looked good but that it was not part of my original plan raised a complex emotion; an unresolved state of mind. Was it okay? What could I do to accept this change when my expectations were not met? Could things be better than expected and still be okay?
On several later occasions this mark plays a vital role in connecting me to the work. It is the only individual mark in the painting that I remember making. Is this an exception that proves a rule? And if so, what unspoken rules about how I should make a painting could my five year old mind have possibly thought up that would bring on such resistance? I don't know how tightly I constrained myself, I knew what had to be done to finish the work and I did it. What did happen that morning was my first taste of a beauty that lies beyond my own limits.
How "Hurrying" Got It's Name
Waiting for the purple paint to dry and making the final yellow brushstroke to complete my maze painting took up a lot of time. The pressure was on to finish and clean up so the next kindergardener could take a turn. I had no time to linger and look at the work. The newsprint was unclipped by Mrs. Powell and taken somewhere to dry.
Painting was part of our weekly routine. We made one painting a week. On Friday the painting was folded into quarters and all of our "work" from the week was stuffed inside. That Friday I looked forward to getting my painting back and sharing my Thanksgiving memories with my mother but it was not sent home, I got only loose papers.
Then one day shortly after the holidays I was called out of the class with a few other students and taken into a room where lots of paintings were laid out on desks. Work was being collected for an art show to be held in the spring and I my maze painting was going to be in it! When I saw the work again I paused for a moment, wondering if it was really my painting. Seeing the yellow over purple brushstroke triggered and solidified my memory. The same trigger occurs now whenever I see the painting.
The fact that the painting was not folded into quarters gave relief to a tension I didn't know I had. Mrs. Powell had pulled the work aside. It was pristine.
The woman organizing the show walked over to look at the painting with me and asked me what I wanted to call it. I didn't know so I mumbled, "Call it "Maze." "Huh?", she said "What?" "Maze," I said. She paused, "Why don't we call it 'Hurrying'?!" I am silent, confused. "Because it looks like people hurrying," she said as she gestured, trying to sell the idea to me. I was stunned. What was she talking about? Didn't she see the maze?
What concerned me was how someone else could see the painting so differently; could have made up her own totally different story. When she pointed out what looked to her like people hurrying, I experienced a visual figure ground reversal. The purple walls of the maze became the space surrounding yellow stick figures.
I laughed when I saw the figures. They *did* kind of look like people hurrying. I agreed to the title, much to the relief of the organizer, because I felt like she really wanted to call it "Hurrying" and I could easily keep the maze image hidden for myself inside the painting.
I noticed for the first time how a painting's title primes a viewer's perception; so much so that I could not convince my father that I had a maze in mind at all when I painted it. To most viewers, it is a picture of people hurrying.
"Hurrying" into the world
Sometime in the spring of 1969 "Hurrying" made its debut in a local arts festival, sponsored by the same organization that ran my kindergarden. Started in 1967, the festival is still going strong and held its 48th annual event in the spring of 2014. According to their website, the original festival presented the first juried art competition in central Louisiana. Of course, to get in the show it didn't hurt that I knew some people on the inside. Always the case, right?
The story my mother told me when I was little was that during the festival someone made an offer to buy "Hurrying". I don't know if the prospective buyer was serious, it doesn't matter, my parents weren't selling; but the offer seemed to give the painting some kind of elevated status in our eyes. It had value!
The following Christmas morning I awoke to find the painting in a thin light-yellow frame with a white mat; hung in a place of prominence in our well trafficked den. I was very happy and proud of the success and attention; but mostly I liked seeing the painting every day for reasons I couldn't express but I think you can understand from knowing my emotional ties to the work.
A work of art has the capacity to evoke far beyond subject matter and materials. The daily imprinting of my feelings on "Hurrying" and the evolving memories formed by living with it have informed my relationship to art. This early experience impressed upon me the power of the personal creative object.
Graduating high school, leaving Louisiana, arriving at college in the northeast, and vowing to study science, any lingering thoughts of "Hurrying" quickly faded; and while science proved to be interesting, once allowed the freedom to choose any course, my attention became increasingly occupied with the guilty pleasures of making Art.
At the beginning of my junior year at Brown, moving into an off-campus house, hauling boxes from storage, including a bulky portfolio stuffed with figure studies from a freshman drawing class, having opened the portfolio and looked in astonishment at the drawings inside, and noticing the onrush of pride, embarrassment, and meaning these drawings evoked, for the first time I felt art facilitate insight on many levels simultaneously.
We formed a circle around a naked girl, about 15 students, standing behind our easels, three mornings a week, big sheets of drawing paper, Ebony pencils, conti crayons, kneaded erasers, and tortillions; sketching various poses.
My nineteen year old, southern, male, ego was imperiled by my lack of talent in figure drawing; my fear of being exposed equaling the degree to which the model was exposed.
I found a way to get through it. At the end of the semester I had plenty of work and, reluctant to throw it away, I stuffed everything into a portfolio and put it in storage for the summer.
In the fall I opened the box of figure drawings and I didn't see a figure. I saw my self reflected in the tentative lines and disproportionate shapes. What I saw in the drawings was a portrait of the person who made the drawings. When I draw I reveal myself in ways that I don't know and that I can't know in that moment.
What has become clear for me as an artist, seeing my work over longer and longer periods of time, is that any meaning a work conveys, any energy that a work transmits to viewers, doesn't happen through what is depicted; subject and materials are secondary to the artist's state of mind.
Having seen how my mental states were hidden in the marks of my drawings, I used every opportunity to observe and study first hand the relationship of mind to making. I was 22 years old and impatient; I made my drawings in extremes of anger, depression, and non-ordinary states because they felt real, the reflections more pure, and 'who I was' seemed more apparent. Imagine a mirror, unerring but delayed in time, that revealed so much. How would you pose in front of it?
I'm still thinking about how lines can reveal information about an artist's state of mind; information that even the artist can't know at the time the lines are drawn.
Thrilled with my discovery of drawing's ability to encode multiple meanings, finding that my drawings held secret messages, messages that revealed themselves to me in their own time, I hid myself away, practicing in the late nights of my mid-twenties, on computer and paper, marking shit up and seeing what resulted.
I was learning to see on two levels; the immediate short read, i.e. what the drawing is 'about', and later the long read; a more fleeting feeling where the reality of the work is discerned.
The best example I can give of how these two levels operate simultaneously was the time I tried to merge them, to understand both levels at once, and the immediate and lasting impression was recursive; the artwork that resulted was about my effort understand what I was making.
|After working on the new piece all day I don't think I could be any more certain of 'drawing reflects the state of mind'.|
|For those keeping score at home, the large work that I began carving on June 3rd and described here, is now competed. A three month operation; but finished faster than the last one. Now that the production process for these large works is better understood, I will see if I can make multiple new pieces at the same time.|
|My motivation to write seems to be on summer vacation.|