For this post I’ve decided to back carefully out of the darker underworld of the Screwtape for Artists letters, and turn to brighter horizons. I’ve gathered my Camino de Santiago posts from last year into one chronological story for you. The photos give me a little spirit whiff again of wheat fields, wine, virgins, horizons. For a moment I was back in the land of blossoms and boots, mazes and muses. I hope you enjoy them.
I have a show hosted by the lovely people at Corricks featuring Sonoma County Art Trails artists. It’s me and the amazing Joel Bennett. Hope you can make it on Friday, if you’re in the area. Spring is almost here, a good time to consider your upcoming pilgrimage, wherever it may take you. Suzanne
For new readers, you can find an introduction to the Screwtape for Artists letters here.
My Dear Wormseed,
Excellent work lately, my friend. The Artist/Subject’s vague sense of victimization– our beloved martyred feeling, so handy for invisible destruction– is well under way. The joyous act of artmaking is actually quite difficult to martyrize, but you are doing a good job here. Humans make art under the most horrendous conditions. Art is a pernicious vermin that invades everywhere and is hard to stamp out.
Here’s a tip: remember that the coffin of the complaining victim is constructed with the nails of DESERVE. Whenever the Artist seems to move forward with energy, pound another DESERVING nail into that brainpan. She DESERVES a break, a cookie, an afternoon off, a cappuccino, to procrastinate just one more day. Here the DESERVE acts as a somehow “earned” reward. The more DESERVING, the less creating.
I am so glad that we have managed to sever the word from it’s original root, which has no “built-in” reward. It simply means to serve completely or fully. The Heroic Artist was very good for our cause in the 20th century: all those tortured men smoking and drinking and screwing themselves to death because they deserved it as artists. In the 21st century the women are taking the helm of the arts, and a new technique for destruction, victimization or the martyr impulse, must be assiduously and viciously cultivated.
The Goose Game is a series of 63 monoprints and monotypes based on my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. The Goose Game is also a European child’s board game similar to Chutes and Ladders with 63 squares. It may have been a mnemonic device used by the Templars to give illiterate medieval pilgrims a “map” to guide them. Forms of this labyrinth-style board game may stretch back to ancient Greece, where the legend is that Greek soldiers invented it to while away time on the beach during their ten-year siege on Troy.
I’m new to monoprint, but I have noticed that it seems to have a pronounced time element embedded into it. Once it runs through the press once, or twice, it is largely fixed, set, done. You get the feeling that each run of the press is a literal compression and limitation of energy, like the joint in a stalk of bamboo.
The press bed presents a threshold of before (the roller pressure) and after. In a metaphorical way, each print could be seen as a dream from the “bed” of the press, with traces remaining and fading.
We are at a hinge in time right now, the Lunar New Year before the Spring Equinox. This is my post 100, and I hope for a hundred more. I wish you good dreams in the year to come.
“Always remember the famous story of Anton Chekhov, who, when asked about his compositional method, picked up an ashtray and said, ‘This is my compositional method. Tomorrow I will write a story called ‘The Ashtray.'”
Anton Chekhov, from the book Cartooning by Ivan Brunetti
As a former smoker, ashtrays are fascinating fossils from a past life. What a great prompt, though: write or create art based on memories of ashtrays. I love this book by Brunetti, part of my interest in the uncharted land where word meets image. Why are comics seen as lowbrow? Doesn’t it take twice as much skill to write a graphic novel as a “real” one? What is so not-fine-art about cartooning? Will an artist who writes, or a writer who arts, inevitably be separated out into “better writer” or “better artist?” Not that I care. Much.
Sometimes the random is all we need.
I’ve added Cartooning to my short shelf of astonishing books on creativity, applicable to any art form. Here’s the last paragraph.
“Although you have no control over the future, you have control over what your are creating right now, and if what you create is honest, it will be compelling. Whether or not it is truly good will be decided long after you are dead. But if you hedge your bets, compromise, prevaricate… are are lost. Something has to be at stake, a part of you has to die and be reborn into your work, if it is to ‘live’ on that sheet of paper, cave wall, or assemblage of pixels. In the end, all we can do is try our best. We are none of us perfect.”
I’ve making experimental monoprints in a series I call the Goose Game. All artists are on a wild goose chase, pursuing an ever-vanishing Muse. There’s no sense to it. Even inventors, or artists of function, have to get lost repeatedly, fumbling in the darkness, before the light goes on. Abstraction, or any creating from nothing, is just plain crazy.
I had a chop made in the form of a rubber stamp. The symbols mean goose, board game, luck, art. A Shakespearean origin of the term “wild goose chase” said it was a kind of horse event where the leader swerved crazily around and the rest of the riders had to follow him. We follow our instincts up the mountain and into the muck and over continents, with the wild goose.
I just saw the film Mr. Turner, and I am so glad I did. He was on a wild goose chase of a new vision of land, water and air, though he was often reviled. Some people say “nothing happens” in the film. Nothing happens, except life. He coughs through bitter winters, scribbling in notebooks, attacking the canvas, day after day until death. We walk with him through vast horizons and empty beaches; never again will we see these views so free of humanity. This film shows the big belly, humble scratching. and wide horizon of Turner’s creation. It’s a treat. Everything happens.
I decided to ask my artist friend Karina Nishi Marcus to join me in a studio time game. From January 30 to February 14, we’re going into our studios every day. The only rule is to walk in and touch something. That’s it. We’re curious what effect that it may have on our productivity. We do email check ins to report without judgement how we’re doing. I’ll let you know how it goes. Care to join us?
Here’s the second Screwtape letter for artists. In case you have just joined me, you can read the introduction to the letter series here. It is a letter to the demon Wormseed, who’s trying to capture the Artist’s soul.
My Stygian colleague Wormseed,
The situation with the Artist grows worse and worse. Each day she enters her studio, your goal fades like the bright colors of the Old Masters or the wild painting on Greek columns. You, Wormseed, have been assigned to suffer Inquisition Number 25631 to remind you to keep working harder. It won’t end soon enough. If only you could succeed as well as the your brother Ifrit did recently in the book burnings. Murdering books is the most delicious snack after eating souls.
I’m afraid you may have to concede defeat on keeping her out of the studio, a tactic which worked so well for so long. Now you must concentrate on subtleties. Early exposure of immature work is a sure-fire way to shut off the tap. Refusal to “practice the scales” of repetitive trials is also good. Perfectionism is a superbly subtle dagger… it bleeds out their disgusting passion for making in a very satisfactory manner.
I see you have activated the string of disquieting dreams that used to derail her from her work in the past. Even those seem to be ineffective: she’s broken their code and now know that they mean she is creating something new. However, a good nightmare or emotional crisis can go quite far. Just don’t let her make any art from them, or the jig is up.
I hope for your sake that you make more progress soon. A molecule of your diabolical existence vanishes each time a brush stroke or line is applied to paper, a reversed Dorian Grey. ( You were involved with him as well, though Oscar escaped us at the end, and after such a promising start. ) I have my faceted fly eye upon you. Do not fail again.
Your ball and chain,
P.S. Despite our continual efforts at the destruction of beauty, new painted caves continue to be found, obscured masterpieces restored. To offset this, the internet offers so many new opportunities for degrading artists, especially if they identify with digital “fame.” The hand of the artist is chopped off and dismembered from the Work, carried out to sea in an exquisite virtual tsunami of mediocrity. Divide et impera!
The Screwtape Letters, written by C.S. Lewis in 1942, is a series of wickedly funny and ominous letters from a higher demon, Screwtape, to a sub-demon, Wormword, who is in charge of corrupting a human soul or “patient.” Of late, it has been fashionable to read of “gremlins” who want to steal your creativity, block you, and so on. I’ve never been fond of the word gremlin. It’s actually a 20th century coinage used for mechanical problems on airplanes, and is “imaginary.” It trivializes and reduces temptation to a cute, manageable, pet-like critter and whitewashes the tempters’ fierce battle for your art.
Artists deal with the shadow; it comes with the territory. But I think we need to correctly name our underworld enemy, and honor it with a measure of gravitas. In this spirit I have hacked the cosmic mailbox to expose some new Screwtape letters for artists, written to a certain Wormseed, who has been assigned the soul of my art. Read the original: it’s a fresh as ever today. I write these to discover what I might have to say to myself about my life and art.
My dear Wormseed,
I see you have been making good progress with the Artist. She’s slowly slipping into a low-key despair, which is always a highly desirable state. Since the advent of the Internet, which I had a large role in creating, your job is so much easier! In some senses, the progress from the medieval artisan to the 21st “artist” has been our major achievement in the Arts. Ironic, isn’t it, that those stone masons, as hungry and poor as they were, accurately carved our likenesses as gargoyles. Portraiture was not dead! Despite oppression and all the fabulous corruption of that Church, they were often closer to escaping us than the sleekly fed, well-medicated artists of today. The Cathedral of Technology holds so many new opportunities for us!
But I digress. I see she’s starting a new project. This is your chance to make more progress. Please amplify the level of distraction in her life. A turn to “reality”– money, job, status, looks, and so on– is one of the best methods we know, because it is so supported by the society at large. Involve her in her own reality show drama, as opposed to her actual life. By all means, keep her from daily walks and home cooked meals, as these fortify her, stopping up those wonderful chinks and holes through which we enter. And DO NOT LET HER OPEN JOURNALS OR SKETCHBOOKS. As soon as she creates even one word or line, our power begins to ebb.
If you keep her in this state of stasis, you will soon see a satisfactory decay. Best of luck to you. Sorry about the turn to non-toxic materials in her studio. You can’t win them all.
I am leaning into the curve of 2015. In November I dressed up my studio to honor lights in the darkness by decorating paper lanterns for Winterblast, solstice, and Christmas. I respond strongly to the annual winter darkness, and I’ve heard many other artists say this too. It’s a time of a lot of inspiration seeds or acorns stored to use later in the year. (Don’t hide them so well you can’t find them, though.) I chose two themes, Cave and Matisse. One is glowing in the dark recesses of the past, and one is jumping with color into the future. There’s a link to my instructions for making them at the end.
Cave and Matisse Lanterns
I did a lot of family things this year. It’s easy to overvalue the things that “show” and are visible. Visual artists do this all the time. Home, family, the elders, and ancestors are the deep roots that feed us, invisibly. I cooked a goose and that was very complicated indeed, but was delicious. It was called “roast beef” in the past because the sliced goose is brown and really does taste like beef. And why not? Geese are land grazers, the cows of the bird world. I did this as an edible metaphor to kick off my work on my new series for 2015, The Goose Game. The Christmas goose is eaten, though wishbone, stock and fat are left– the old ways. Come on over and I’ll roast potatoes in goose fat for you– I got that hint from a 1940s James Beard cookbook and they are amazing.
I’ll be starting a Goose Game monotype series soon, using Akua soy inks and etching press. You can come along for the ride: I’ll be posting process photos and blogs. January is coming to an end and a new year is unfurling like a fern frond. Lean into that spiral. Here are Saltworkstudio’s lantern instructions. Enjoy.
Our painting collaboration (Susan Cornelis and Suzanne Edminster) is finding squirrels, squawking bird things, skulls, and stubborn winged beings in our paint . Are they vermin or rare species? Should they be conserved or eliminated? Here’s a wild start on a 24″ x 24″ canvas. These starts are ephemeral: this one no longer exists, but has already changed. Check the left corner.
Karina Nishi Marcus told me about Braque, Picasso, and the Squirrel. Picasso found a squirrel form in the middle of one of Braque’s paintings, and Braque struggled for 8 days trying to get rid of it. I’ve included the story in a link below. It’s interesting that Picasso told Braque to kill it, get rid of it. Braque’s squirrel was living in a painting of tobacco, pipes, cafe glasses. Picasso said the squirrel didn’t belong there. On the other hand, Picasso, with his autocratic personality, might not have ever allowed something to appear in his painting that he didn’t plan, sanction, or control.
Our wild things emerge from splashes, spatters, and a short discussion of media and possible compositional forms. Keep them and develop them? Paint them out? What about this fellow?
He absolutely hijacks the whole composition. Paint him out in favor of more balance and harmony? Here’s a detail of what we did to the painting. The “squirrel”– the bird in the corner– is still there.
A lot of you are painters out there. What do you think? Thumbs up or thumbs down to the Bird Thing?
Mythic notes: Read the full story of the Picasso, Braque and the squirrel . These painting apparitions belong to either the world of projection and psychology, or the world of the dream. Painting is dreaming out loud, lucid dreaming. Change the dream? Is it nonsense or an omen? Do we let it pass like a cloud, and onto the next dream, or painting? See more of our painting day from Susan Cornelis’ point of view.
Studio news: Karina Nishi Marcus is having an opening at the Wine Emporium in Sebastopol this Friday. Come and enjoy her masterful work.
Artist’s reception for
Karina Nishi Marcus
Friday, February 10, 2012 from 5-8 pm at “The Wine Emporium.”125 N. Main St. · Sebastopol CA 95472
Plan to meet the artist and enjoy excellent food, wine and music!The Wine Emporium is located at 125 North Main Street, in Sebastopol, a few doors North of Hwy. 12. Karina Nishi Marcus’ paintings can be seen on the sets of major motion pictures and TV shows including, Mad Men, NCIS, Parenthood, CSI: NY, Monk and House.