Friday, March 25, 2011

Failure to Connect

The Great Divide

Exactly eight months ago, I left a full-time job at a prestigious academic institution to pursue life as a working artist. My entire adult life has been about an attempt to balance my creative activities (what I like to think of as Who I Really Am) with earning enough money to stay housed fed and clothed (otherwise known as How Other People Live).  Because I have never been able to give enough time and energy to advancing either of these pursuits, but can give up neither entirely, both have suffered. As a result, I am closing in on 50 years on this planet, and have yet to establish myself in any financially or personally successful professional or creative career. I’ll never pull a six figure salary at a job with a fancy title.  And every time I make sacrifices to attend to the making of art, before I can make any real progress I find myself stalled by the realities of the art world, or the credit cards max out, or both, and I have no choice but to return to yet another dull frustrating doomed desk job and begin the cycle again. I’ve made my choices with free will and open eyes, without regret, but I do often wonder what would have happened if I had chosen differently, and stuck with one thing or the other long enough to make a success of it. 

 The Last Market 

I miss crochetting. All winter I have been holding onto great ideas about themes to explore and scenes to capture once my cameras and I started spending more quality time together. I packed up all my scarves and wristies after the last market at the Burren and the return of spring weather, and started doing photo shoots, film and digital. It was wonderful to be engaged in something that felt a lot more like art and a lot less like craft. And I was pleased with the first results. It made me feel that all this time off from a paying job was finally paying off – my creativity had recovered from being stifled in a cubicle chained to a computer, and was ready to expand and roam freely. It made me feel I had done the right thing eight months ago.

 Good Eye
But being a photographer isn’t just about taking pretty pictures. Long after that precious moment of seeing something and connecting with it in a way that allows you to capture it forever, like a wild beast that allows you to tame it and take it home, there is an endless and to me vexatious journey between processing the image and presenting it to the world. It used to be you’d get your negatives and prints back from the camera shop and the ones you liked, you asked for enlargements. The intricacies of film processing and printing were left to the experts. Period. You could send these pieces of paper to contests or galleries, confident that this was a final product, this was, all parties would be in agreement, a PHOTOGRAPH. You could place them in an album, or mount them for display.  Purists and students and the top masters in the field did their own darkroom processing. But you could still consider yourself a serious photographer even if you didn’t know much about the science of photography, the way a good driver doesn’t necessarily know how to build a car, or a good writer know how to set his own type on a letterpress. All you had to do was take a good picture.

 Through a Glass Darkly
Nowadays, everything has gone digital. Even if you shoot film, there is an expectation that the negatives will be scanned and that digital files will be the mode of transport for your image, whether you are sharing it with other people online, submitting it to a contest or gallery, or creating a portfolio, and with that expectation comes an assumption that if you own a computer and a file full of images, you either know everything about how to format them, or have a program installed that does. This past week I had to cancel plans to submit to two photography contests because I couldn’t convert the files to their specifications. I had a nice group of images selected, that I believe had a solid chance at winning, but I lacked the technological knowledge to manipulate them properly, not to mention the right software or the money to acquire it. I was pleased that with my dinosaur brain I actually understood the terminology of what they wanted enough to know I couldn’t provide it, and that I didn’t become one of those people who just send what they have and ignore instructions. But it hit home for me that I have a lot to learn about what it really means to be a photographer these days, and that what I’m learning so far is not making me want to continue being one, and that maybe this is why I have held off for so long taking what has always been a purely private passion to the next level. 

 Here Lies
I seem to recall going through a similar rude awakening when I left a full time job in order to pursue my poetry professionally. I thought all I had to do was write beautiful poems and send them legibly typed to editors until my list of credits earned me a full-length book publication. I did successfully place dozens of poems in literary journals, but the deeper I got into the literary world the more disenchanted and disappointed I became, and the realities of what was expected of me began to sour the simple joy of writing. No book ever happened. Within a year, I went back to working at a library full time. That was 17 years ago, and back then the enemy wasn’t technology, but the disheartening feeling of “this isn’t what I thought I was getting into” was the same.

 Half and Half
My activities as a photographer have lately occupied two realms – out and about with camera in hand, and sitting in front of my laptop managing and manipulating image files. The latter far exceeds the former in time consumed. If you asked me about my work when I was crochetting, I could hand you a scarf that you could hold in your hands, the way I held it in my hands, enjoying  the textures and patterns that resulted from my physically working with raw materials and creating a tangible final product, done when it was done. And I could literally do it with my eyes closed. If you ask me about my former life as a poet, I can hand you my small 1997 chapbook and you can curl up in a cozy corner and read fourteen poems that represent the best of what I had written at that time, each one of them remaining true to itself whether read in book form or manuscript or even read aloud.  To this day, I know what a poem is, and is not.  Ask me about my photography and I am not really sure at the moment where or what my “work” is. I have boxes full of negatives and disks. I have online files of images, some of them in multiple versions, some scans from film, some that frighteningly exist only digitally, having been downloaded from my camera and vanished into a virtual reality without leaving a physical trace of any kind. I have old glossy photographs done by my camera shop last year that look quaint and amateurish compared to what I have now discovered to be today’s standards of printing. Perhaps for other photographers these infinite possibilities and shifting boundaries are thrilling, but to me they are dizzying and baffling. I’m no longer sure what a photograph is, the way you know what a painting, sculpture or collage is, because it is right there, a physical object born of its maker's hands and ready to face the world.  I feel entirely disconnected from my work. 

 Back to Back
This week, after I gave up the frustrations of trying to submit to contests, I made selections from my files for images I’d like to print and frame for Open Studios. They are good images. I think they will have an effect on anyone who stands before them. Some of them have appeared here and done exactly that. Because I don’t have access to a darkroom, I am working from the scans of negatives my camera shop provided.  I don’t care what the dpi, pixel or inch dimensions are, the number of the image quality, if the files are flattened or compressed, in RGB or Grayscale. Even if I can now locate most of this information in several different ways through my computer, I am going to trust that my camera shop guy gave me the best specifications and stick with that. I am not going to spend a fortune to have a dozen images printed professionally by a custom shop specializing in museum quality prints – I’d have to give up food for a month. I am trying to simplify and not spend an hour sweating over each image file before I can safely hit “Print.”

 I Was of Three Minds
But even then, I have to learn about printing. I have to understand what kind of files I have, accordingly what the best settings on my printer are, what the best paper is, and what I have to do to make the image on my screen look the way I want it to on the page. I have a photographer friend who understands such matters, and hopefully he can kindly and gently guide me through the easiest and simplest steps to achieve this result, the way the resident tech expert in an office gives you a cheat sheet with instructions to follow and does not expect you to have a degree in computer technology to launch the Internet every morning.  When I left the library world last year, it was precisely this reduction of physical material sitting on a shelf in a facility miles away to intangible pieces of data to be stored and processed by a machine, not to mention the folders full of cheat sheets required to do the simplest tasks, this bloodless disconnect, that drove me away to a life I thought would be far more connected and less cold. But here I am, supposedly free from life shackled to a computer, required to break down art into lines of data and commands entered to perform work upon them while I sit on my hands, waiting and watching to see if it worked. And I hear myself saying again “this isn’t what I thought I was getting into.” 

I am a poet and photographer. 

But I miss crochetting.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Hanging On and Letting Go

Balancing Act

It won’t come as a surprise to any of you who do not live under a rock that times have been difficult lately for individuals and communities, for landscapes economical, political, natural and that most vulnerable and volatile of all, the landscape of the human spirit. It does seem that for everyone, in ways large and small, there has been and continues to be a lot of hanging on and letting go going on, so I thought I’d dedicate a post to the things I am clinging to like a grappling hook on a concrete ledge, and those that are slipping my grasp, as if they were water, and my grasp also water.  But in the interest of balance (see image above), since I let my words and opinions dominate my last post, I’m putting images first this time, and invite you to supply your own associations.

Hanging On

 Letting Go

My Grasp Also Water

  Hope is a Feathered Thing

 Fountain of Tears

 Cracks Hold us Together

 Separation Anxiety

Guardian of the Garden

Thank you to all my old and new readers, those who comment regularly and those who follow silently. I truly appreciate your presence here. Have a wonderful week!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Trauma Gender and Identity

Chair Style

Did that grab your attention? Probably moreso than if I had entitled this post “Truth and Beauty” and begun with a less provocative photograph, which I must admit was originally taken purely in a spirit of wit and whimsy, not sociopolitical or aesthetic agenda, and is used here to make a point about the loss of the former and the surfeit of the latter in today's art world.

I am not sorry, and in fact I feel quite grateful and fortunate to be able to say that there has actually been not much remarkable trauma in my life, aside from the usual grievous disappointments and losses that happen when you are a feeling thinking striving human being in close contact with other human beings who have as much power to make as break you. Gender and identity issues I have none. I was born a woman, and live and love as a woman, and have never suffered for being one except for the most basic and mild discomforts and inequities biology and society can inflict here in the 21st century in my mostly enlightened peaceful and prosperous part of the country. And my identity may be a work in progress, but one for which a strong foundation and general structure have been in place for a long time and any changes have been along the lines of surface detail and not a rebuilding from the ground up as result of utter devastation due to forces from without or within.

 Mask and Mirror

Truth and beauty, on the other hand, are very much lifelong influences and concerns of mine, which would seem to be a good place to be, unless of course you are an artist seeking a place in today’s art scene. It’s the same in the literary scene, and why I left it decades ago to write my poetry in isolation, even if it meant giving up any hope for recognition or reward. As artists we are always told to create from the heart, know who we are, do what we love, and the success will follow. Unless of course if what you lovingly create from who you are doesn’t fit the current trends of what is considered worthwhile, noteworthy and marketable art.

 You Are Not Alone

When I first started writing poetry, I did so with a vast background as a reader first, a writer second. This has nothing to do with formal education. I learned as much on my own, if not more, than I did in any classroom, and support both ways of acquiring knowledge. However it happened, I developed what I didn’t even yet dare call out loud my “craft” by absorbing countless examples from the pens of the past, as well as plying my own pen daily in journals, letters to friends and writing assignments in school. I approached every piece of writing, voluntary or required, as if it were a “study from life,” a careful, considered exercise in rendering what was before my eyes in a way that was systematic and calculated at first, and then somehow blossomed with a beauty and spontaneity all its own. This is what is called “finding your voice.”  I am of the old school way of thinking, that to find your voice, you have to first listen to and learn about everyone else’s voice, and then practice, practice, practice. There are no shortcuts. You have to master your craft in order to transcend it. And if you are lucky, you never do reach the point where there is no more to learn.

 One on One

In my twenties and thirties I wrote exclusively in form, not knowing that this traditional approach to poetry was meantime being reviled and rejected by writing programs nationwide. I especially liked sonnets and sestinas, and the more obscure and complex forms that required the kind of facility with rhyme, meter and word placement that could create a final product that involved almost mathematical precision in its formulation yet sounded as if it emerged with ease and couldn’t have been written in any other words. To me, that was far more challenging than writing freestyle. It was as if the muses were saying “here is a small box, here are the rules you must abide by to fill it, and yet you must still be utterly truthful, and utterly beautiful and natural in your expression. You must create a tiny perfect miniature, and it must look, feel and sound like the whole world on its first day looking at itself in a mirror.” I had such reverence for language and what it could do in the right hands, it seemed obvious to me that the way to get language to flow freely for you was to work it, with respect, discipline and passion, the way you train your body for an athletic event. The way a musician gets to know their instrument. You don’t just show up at the Olympics or Carnegie Hall with good intentions and a clever marketing strategy. You have to log hours of what may seem old fashioned, routine and repetitive work in order to even qualify for the Big Event during which you can finally let it all fly. You have to be flexible, open and humble, but in the end you had better know what you’re doing and be able to do it.


Then at age 40, I went to graduate school, where they treated my formalism like a bad habit or personal defect to be cured, removed, despised. I guess this ironically may qualify as my one instance of being unjustly persecuted and traumatized simply for who I am!  I presented a well-crafted, intelligent and heartfelt sonnet in a workshop, in which the poem discussed before mine consisted of what appeared to be random notes written on matchbooks, Post-its and cocktail napkins, provoking a lengthy discussion – and when my turn arrived all I received in response from my professor was the question “for God’s sake why are you writing in form??” My stunned reply, as I choked back tears, was “that’s just how it comes out!” And theirs, “well, stop it.” The rest of the group had nothing else to offer, as if the screen of my formalist approach blinded them utterly to what the poem actually contained. Only one of my fellow students confessed (nobly but sheepishly) to ever having written in form or admired those who did. I let the vocal majority convince me that I was being held back by deep unrecognized fear and not simply following an alternate personal style that suited and pleased me. They believed strongly that behind all these tidy little old fashioned songs of longing and despair was some big ugly contemporary truth that needed to be vomited out chaotically onto the page in all its raw power to be valid. They could not be bothered to look for my truth, right where it was, living and breathing within the timeless order of every line.

 You Caught Me

Two years into my graduate program, I was writing in free verse. I missed rhyme and meter and tried to hide them in the middle of lines when and where I could. I was like a recovering formalist addict, careful not to discuss openly my love of Shakespeare, sneaking a couplet here and there and hoping not to be discovered. I had to earn my “lapses” by writing whole poems without any of the complex wordplay and music I craved, and then ending with one beautiful flourish they let me get away with.  I may have stopped writing like Edna St. Vincent Millay, but I also never wrote one successful deconstructed poem about trauma, gender or identity issues. Don’t get me wrong, my time at this program was some of the happiest I’ve known, I left it stronger as a person and feeling more connected to other writers, and I would recommend it to anyone. But in my particular case, strictly in terms of my poetic output, it took me a long time to find my true voice again. Part of me understood that in any of the arts the learning process involves letting go of old techniques and beliefs and subject matter that may be limiting your potential and trying some new things to stretch some different muscles.  But I often wondered, what if this is what I do best, who I am, and letting go to embrace something I lack is the wrong thing to do when I should be perfecting what I’ve already got? I also wondered, if I am willing (read: compelled) to abandon my style and technique to learn yours for the sake of growth, why is it that none of you freestylers is willing or compelled to learn mine on the same terms? Especially when mine happened to be favored by the greatest poets of the past few centuries? 

 Go No Further

I will admit that there were benefits from my academic education. I have an advanced degree I will never use except to impress people who are impressed by such things. I have learned how to stand my ground in spite of someone looking me in the eye and telling me “no one will ever publish or read you if you write this way. Persist and you condemn yourself to obscurity.” And bear in mind the writing program I attended was one of the most open-minded and encouraging of individuality and going against trends at the time! Rest assured, in the years since graduating, obscurity has worked out a lot better for me than putting my name on what I consider to be lazy, unskilled writing, indistinguishable from everything else coming out of the majority of writing programs, in which the power of the work is based on manipulating the reader into thinking here is something raw and real and troubling going on, which they don’t quite understand and makes them feel a little weird, so it must be GOOD, right? And as long as university faculty continued to train their students in the same style as got them their own publications and jobs, and accepted no other new way, even if it was the old way returning from the past to be recognized, and these students went out into the world to keep perpetuating that process, the literary world was not and is not one I want to be part of.

Reflecting Back

In the arts, there are pioneers and guardians. We need the ones who leave behind the past to explore new territory; we also need the ones who secure the old outposts. But something strange has happened in the ways we educate our up and coming creative souls. The academy more and more is favoring a rejection of tradition outright, tradition sometimes meaning anything that happened more than 30 years ago, and pushing its students toward art and writing that are more based on the market they will be facing after graduation than a solid background in their craft, as if that were a waste of time, instead of an invaluable enrichment and basis for any direction they later take. Meantime anyone seeking a more traditional approach is limited to elite groups whose approach may include old techniques but can also exclude modern sensibilities. So who are today’s rebels?  It would seem there is no room for those who seek to innovate within tradition, stuck as they are between the true diehards who never let go of their rigid ideals, and the newcomers who are equally limited by their inability to look anywhere but forward.

   Eye of the Beholder

But arts always follow the cycle of experimental to classic, revolutionary to refined. Once you go too far, and art becomes a matter of who can most efficiently shock and disgust and virtually manipulate the work and the audience from day to day and trend to trend, when the attention-deficit-friendly approach of making immediate and easy effectiveness and marketability of content trump beauty and integrity of presentation is infecting all the arts, you can only come back again to the old values. For painting it’s the figure study from life, (which I was recently horrified to learn is nearly absent from art school training today!) for the poet, working with traditional rhyme and meter.  As I emerge from my private studies as a photographer into the public realities of working in this medium, I will likely rub up against the same conflict of values. Already there seems to be an encouraging sense of rebellion against technology in the resurgence of and return to the use of film. I would love to think this is a genuine respect for the potential of the medium and not just another trend everyone is eager to be identified with until the next one comes along.    

 Streak of Light in the Darkness

Though I cannot imagine the foundation and future of painting without renderings of the human form, as a photographer I don’t do many human portraits. If and when I do, it will be on my own terms and in my own style, most likely studies resembling those of the great black and white film photographers who through lighting and dramatic angles turned human form into landscape or architecture. This is how my eye works and what my heart desires when I put a camera in front of me, and what the masters who have taught me by example have done that most stirs my soul. I would rather spend my whole unsung life capturing on film or in writing one effect of light or shadow on a stone or in the heart, until it becomes the whole history of human feeling and thought, than follow trends and create on demand the kind of works that guarantee grants and solo shows at prestigious modern art museums.  If that is what it takes, those who work that way are welcome to it. It is not my way. And neither way needs to be wrong to make the other right. Unfortunately wallets and minds rarely open for more than one current accepted way at a time, and it takes a lot of time to change that.

Wait and Watch
For my part, I do not believe that knowledge of the works and a facility with the techniques of the masters indicates or encourages a lack of imagination or guts or relevance or the potential impact or value of the finished work or works to come. It does however now unfortunately ensure a challenge for anyone brave enough to follow this path in today’s art climate in any medium. I do believe, whatever the current trends are, there are other old school rebels out there who think and feel the same as I do, and eagerly await the next turning of the tide, or will turn the goddamn tide themselves. To them I say: stay strong, stay beautiful, stay true. 

This post is dedicated to Damon and the Boston Figurative Art Center. Aux barricades!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Food for Thought

warning: reading this post on an empty stomach may cause you to order pizza

Last year, in a very well-received post, I talked about what a blessing is a sense of smell. It has taken a while, but I am finally, thanks in part to some recent expressed shared enthusiasm among blogfriends for pizza, getting around to celebrating the sense of taste. If you have other things to attend to and would like the short version, this post can be summed up in four words: I am a foodie. While my relationship with food has been compromised at times by periods of excess and denial, for the most part it has been a happy, healthy and satisfying source of pleasure in my life, wrapped up with a lot of good memories and by now such a part of who I am I can’t imagine life without it. Yes, I know I said this about music not so long ago in this space! Let’s just say if I had to choose between a good pizza and Jimi Hendrix rising from the dead to serenade me, my reply would be “can I think about it?”

 one of the happiest sights I know

Some people eat for nourishment, on schedule, on demand, a necessary but joyless function that not only fails to enrich but often interferes with the more important elements of their daily routine.  I am not one of those people. I think about, prepare, consume and enjoy food as if it were a grand adventure, a love affair, a night at the opera, the kind of experience in which how you get there is just as important as what you do when you arrive and how you remember it when it’s over. Think movies like Babette’s Feast, Like Water for Chocolate, Eat Drink Man Woman, Tampopo, and the famous spaghetti scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. In my childhood household, a tradition my brother and I have carried on into our own adult lives by making sure to choose mates who are also unrepentant foodies, the phrase “what’s for dinner?” always made its first appearance well before lunchtime.  We have been known to spend a delicious meal talking about other delicious meals we’ve had and those yet to be savored.  At restaurants, I prefer eating in groups not because I love company, but because I always want to sample everything on the menu and the more people at table, the better my odds of tasing the maximum number of different dishes!

 go ahead, have a slice!

It doesn’t hurt to be Italian. My people are synonymous with food and its abundant loving distribution, delivered direct from a warm busy kitchen to the soul. Meals have always been to me an occasion for both social bonding and sensory delight, and holiday meals especially an excuse to present unique foodstuffs in a context of artistically arranged settings and zero-guilt enjoyment. This great engine of culinary pleasure was for a long time powered by my grandmothers, whose best recipes were built on instinct, intuition and whatever tools or ingredients were at hand, a legacy of their upbringing in old country poverty.  When they were eventually convinced to commit these feats of alchemy to language that could be placed in a standard modern format on an index card, the results were neither complete nor accurate, and earned them a reputation for protecting family secrets and personal pride through a campaign of misinformation.  But the fact was, the best instructions for making good dough really do transcend measurements in ounces and minutes. Good chefs, like any other kind of artist, know how to improvise with the most limited ingredients and facilities, or when something doesn’t go according to expectation; bakers know that the phrases “as needed” and “until done” are as precise as you can hope to get in matters of kneading in flour and producing a ball of dough to the right pliable yet firm consistency, not to mention the vagaries of the heat intensity of individual ovens and other factors like altitude and humidity that affect the rising and the baking! If you can’t accept these mysteries of the process, you don’t belong in the kitchen. 

  hurry up it’s going fast!

As a child I loved being in the kitchen on Sunday visits or during the holidays, soaking in all the smells, the sounds, the warmth, watching the masterful feminine force of all that chopping, stirring, shaping.  As a result I retained a lot of visual memory of the goings on that never made it onto those well-intentioned but misleading recipe cards. As I grew older, and my grandmothers passed away and took all their secrets with them, I came to understand that not only did I have a talent for working and judging dough by hand and eye, but I also understood exactly where everyone else attempting to re-create the old recipes was failing.  I will never forget the watershed event of my mother and I one day adding an uncalled-for egg to my grandmother’s Sicilian pizza dough recipe. But it doesn’t say so here, are you sure? Grandma added an egg, yes, I’m sure. Or the quirk that my other grandmother, for lack of modern equipment, always used an old demitasse cup, not a standard measuring cup, for flour, making each cup listed on the recipe card actually 2 ounces smaller. This can make a big difference when baking strictly by the numbers! 

 save the last cheesy mushroom and olive for me!

Over the years I mastered some of the old recipes, and I use that verb loosely, because to this day nothing I make ever tastes the same as their superior versions of it, even if I recreate all the old conditions, techniques and materials. There are always differences to account for, but I like to think there is some other ineffable, unquantifiable element that goes into the creations of a good cook, call it heart, call it soul, but it can flavor a sauce unlike any spice. For a while, I thought I was creating these dishes in denial of the unimaginable fate of never being able to taste them again. But I think now I do it not so much to remember and enjoy my grandmothers’ food, as to preserve everything about why the world was a better place for me while they were in it, by becoming them for a few hours. Sometimes when I’m handling a dough, I even sing their songs. 

 one of the saddest sights I know 

I make an excellent ricotta pie, pretty good bread, and calzone that can bring tears to my father's eyes, using an old ceramic pan handed down from my grandmother, and as close to the original as anyone could get without a visit to the afterlife. But the one thing I could never master (or live without!) was pizza. Fortunately, there’s a very good pizza parlor nearby run by a man who does a much better job duplicating the old family recipes than I do!  And he delivers.

Now, before you all run off to phone in an order for pizza delivery, I wanted to share some good news and a link. My favorite camera shop has chosen to feature my work on their website throughout the month of March. They are also offering special prints of select images for sale, most of which proceeds will go to my designated charity, a local animal hospital. Please check out their website, here.