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Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas

 

 
 H O T   T O P I C S

 

"...after visiting his wall-length closet and selecting a pair of handmade shoes and one of his many handmade suits - black calfskin bluchers, say, to go with a black and white nailhead worsted - and then accessorizing with the appropriate tie, pocket square and cuff links, Mr. Talese goes out of his front door and down 14 steps to a room under the stoop."

From "Gay Talese Steps Back into Print," New York Times Book Review, 4/23/06.


Judy's Journal, June 2005


Commitment to a Life of Making Art

Dear Reader,

The first time I read the article about Gay Talese getting ready for his writing day, an image of John Cheever came into my head. I remembered reading a description of him sitting in his basement and writing in his underwear. Clothing preferences of artists and writers is the stuff of biographers, offering yet another layer to be interpreted. The subject this month is about the decision to "go to work" in the first place.

Pablo Picasso made his decision as a child to dedicate himself to a life of art. A prodigy with family support and the encouragement of teachers can do that. Some of us make the commitment later in life and for reasons wholly our own. All artmakers' stories differ. My reason for leaving full time teaching was not to become a writer and a visual artist. The compromises necessary to remain where I was became intolerable, so I decided to leave, ethics intact and small pension in hand.

By that point in my life, I already considered myself a serious practitioner of my other vocation, writing. My criteria were simple: I wrote regularly and got my work published. In other words, I worked at it. I considered every effort, from writing syllabi to writing a book to making a poem, as opportunities to practice my craft. I took classes and attended workshops. When I wasn't actually writing, I was thinking about writing, making notes, reading about writing, and reading others' writing. Every event that became meaningful in my life was illuminated by the fact that I could write about it. I always believed that being a writer is an earned identity, not just wishful thinking.

When I made the difficult decision to leave full time teaching, I thought the door had opened to the writing life. I already knew from experience that royalties would not do much to supplement my income. I already understood what it meant "to be a writer"*and had my outfits ready for work: sweats or shorts and tee shirts. I owned several long, swoopy garments for when I was invited to read. At least one person appreciated my style, but revealed more than she meant to when she said, "Well, at least you look like a poet."

A more challenging decision was to come a few months later. The boat was rocking. I had not allowed myself the time to mourn the loss of the "teacher" identity that defined me since childhood. I needed to mourn that part of me that unpredictably connected to students whose faces and words still visit me in memory; the part that read students' journals and recognized their struggles and their brilliance; the part that holds the image of my mother clasping her hands in joy when I was accepted into a doctoral program.

It was in the thrall of this severe emotional crisis that my husband, John Gaumond, advised me to return to painting after decades of not practicing it. He knew that I was obsessed by art. Four years of studio art in high school had burned an indelible mark in me. When it was time for college, I had heeded my mother's advice that "art teachers are the first to be laid off, but they'll always need classroom teachers." I have no regrets. I loved teaching but, thankfully, art became my life's motif even as I had chosen security over passion.

When my husband suggested that I take a class with an artist whose work we had purchased a few years earlier, I said, "You don't know what you are saying." I remembered the large amounts of cash I really didn't have going for materials. I remembered losing track of time when I painted. I remembered the struggles and the failures, the embarrassing pieces of work I had destroyed. The great painter/teacher Hans Hofmann said, "You must struggle." He wasn't kidding, and I knew it.

After my first class, I came home with the assignment to make a painting using a limited palette. Under the skylight in the back hall, I laid out the tubes of acrylics on the blanket chest and propped the canvas board on my easel. When I squeezed out cobalt blue and titanium white and mixed them with my palette knife, I cried.

It's nearly a decade later, and I paint and paint and paint. Six years ago, I used my life savings to build a studio on the back of our house. I write and write and write. I could do other things with my life. Some of them would even generate more money (and less rejection) than painting and writing do. That would be nice. But not nice enough.

There is such wisdom in the following excerpt from Joan Didion's 1975 commencement address at the University of California, Riverside. When I read it the first time, I thought, "This is why I made the decision to do what I do."

"I'm just telling you to live in [the world]. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave's a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Not do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that's what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it." ("Every Day Is All There Is," New York Times Book Review, 10/9/05).

What makes artists and writers commit to a life of art? One answer is: We make art because we can, and we must. Artists and writers stories are different, and we inspire each other by recounting them. A recent PBS program about Paul Cezanne told how disappointed his beloved father was when Paul gave up law after years of studying in order to serve his passion for making art. I watched it and wondered what my mother would have said about my decision to leave teaching. Stockbroker and Sunday painter Paul Gauguin gave up his business suits to make art. Henri Matisse was primed (no pun intended) to take over the family seed store after he finished his schooling. Frida Kahlo's rigorous high school education prepared her for medical school. One September day, as she began her senior year, she climbed aboard a bus to go to school. The accident that followed has become a legend in art history. And then there was the Dutch minister's son, who became a preacher himself, but whose compassion for poor people made him a misfit among his peers and elders. The pressures turned him to another calling. This was Vincent Van Gogh.

Are you committed to a life of art? What are your biggest concerns? Talent? Money? Fame? If you have comments, questions or experiences, contact me: judy@paletteandpen.com. For September, I will do some thinking on last month's promised journal topic: themes in poetry.


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