The Artist’s Walk

We pull ourselves up, grabbing gleaming railings buffed by years of hands sliding over their glossy surfaces, to the fourth floor of the old Masonic building.  Heart pounding, legs quivering, I stop to get my breath, to let a family—long-tressed tiny mama, dad with a fuzzy knit hat and a baby papoosed on his chest, dancing toddler daughter in blue jeans and lavender nylon tutu—scooch around me.

The old building, with its grand architecture, elaborate woodwork, intricately tiled floors, is a warren of art studios. On the first Friday of every month, the artists put out brownies and lemonade, white wine and home-baked Parmesan crackers, craft beer and crudités. They sweep up the detritus that’s left from making art; they display their work on rickety tables covered with jewel-toned cloths. And they throw open their doors to a cool-eyed crowd. They wave and beckon, hoping the public will appreciate and understand.

I wander down the hallway after the boyos; at the very far end, in a small, bright room, a slender young woman stands rigidly next to a table full of tiny paintings. I say hello and she takes a breath, and then she is unleashed.

She tells me she works in paint and crayon, ink and oil. She does multi-media art and photography. She is celebrating her one year anniversary of having this studio with a buy two, get one free sale.

She looks at me, hopeful.

I ask her about her favorite medium, and I pick up a pen and ink drawing of the Dark Side album cover. I show it to Jim, who, at age 27, has just discovered Pink Floyd. (“Oh, by the way,” he will ask me, once or twice a day, apropos of something random, “which one’s Pink?”)

I mention Jim’s interest to the artist, and she lights up, swiveling, still in that tightly-held posture, to face him. “Favorite song?” she demands, and Jim is thoughtful. He tells her about the four albums he has bought and downloaded in the last year; he has favorite tunes on each. He loves an opening here–but not the rest of that song,–and a cover there.

I leave them discussing “Comfortably Numb,” (“My dad wants that played at his funeral,” Jim confides to the artist-girl) and wander next door, where Mark is looking at some large photographic canvases. There are shots of soaring planes in magenta clouds and gleaming red sports cars on rain-glazed Parisian streets. There is one of Janis Joplin floating above the ground next to a pink RV. Behind her, the moon is tethered to the ground with what look like attenuated swing-set supports. Acrylic and multi-media, read the tags.

This room is bigger, evening sun shining through massive windows with ancient, rippling glass, and many artists share the space. Amazing wooden sculptures interrupt the photographic realism. They sweep and swerve and they beg me to touch their gleaming surfaces, as smooth and lovely as those railings that help us heave ourselves upstairs. Polished by elbow grease, though, these works are–not patina-ed by time.

We circle the room, the walls lined with prints and girded by sculptures; the sweeping floor punctuated by installations. I circle around one and find, behind a wall of paintings, an exhibit of chain mail. There are gloves and the beginning of a vest; there are tiny samples  of linked metal that show how one begins. There is a stack of flyers advertising the artist’s specialty bracelet–chain mail linked by a polished silver puzzle piece. He urges people to wear them in support of families affected by autism.

“How about that?” I say, showing Mark,–and Jim, who has joined us. The artist, a gentle young man in a fuzzy toque, with baggy jeans and sleeves so long I can just see his black-tinged fingertips, breaks away from a conversation and wanders over. He tells me that someone from the autism society suggested the project to him. He liked the idea.

How many should I make? he asked his mentor, and that person said, I don’t know. Twenty?

So he made twenty, and they sold within two days.

I need to make more, he says.

I told him we’d be interested in knowing when he had more bracelets. Autism, I say, is a topic of close importance to my family.

He looks at me, fiercely making eye contact. To MINE, too, he says.

He gives me his card, and we wander on, down the stairs, past the three men by the doorway, playing folk guitars and singing “The House of the Rising Sun” .

We cross an alley and a parking lot and we go into another studio, shared by two women named Susan who do collage and fabric art and experiment with paint and printing and weaving found objects into their work. Their studio is upstairs; three men make music in a couched corner. Above and behind them soars a book lined loft, reached by ladder-like stairs. Slouchy, comfortable chairs angle into the sun. I want to sneak back and spend an afternoon, reading in the sun amidst amazing art.

At the back of the studio, one of the artists offers us a tour of the loft apartments which have just been vacated. We walk on reclaimed wood floors, surrounded by soaring brick walls, and windows that reach from floor to 16-foot ceilings. Sleek open spaces. Wood and stone and metal.  Someone’s artistic urban vision come to life in a downtown Zanesville building.

We drive home by the still and mirrored river, and I ponder artistry and inspiration. I am reading a new book by Kay Redfield Jamison,  Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire. It is subtitled, “A study of genius, mania, and character.” Lowell, who won the Pulitzer for his poetry, also spiraled between intensity and insanity, in and out of institutions, up from the depths, writing his way through despair and shame after manic episodes left him reeling.

I think of the intense young artists I met tonight. I think of an artist’s cooperative I visited in Chicago with my nephew Brian, a vibrant downtown space filled with the work of autistic adults. I think of Vincent Van Gogh and his mutilated ear.

Because where is that line, the one between genius and lunacy?

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Children are creators, uninhibited, dancing and singing, wielding wild crayons, declaiming to plush audiences. Cutting paper into baubles worthy of the Queen. Children land beautifully, unselfish-consciously, on the side of crazy-good creating.

But that doesn’t always–or often, maybe–stick. Something happens; the creativity fades and other passions flood in–the passion for achievement, for nurturing, for being responsible. This is not wrong or bad or ill-advised. But I remember going to visit ‘Auntie’ Mags, many years ago; she was in her nineties, in a home, and her hands encircled my wrists like the claws that blindly reach for gaudy treasures in those rip-off machines at the arcade.

She’d been an art teacher, Mags had, and a dancer. Once, she told me, she’d loved an artist; he had, she said, a chest as big and firm as a tropical beach, and as warm and tantalizing to rest on. She chortled at my twitch of shock.

An artist, she mused, remembering, and then she told me that a day came when she looked at him and didn’t see free-spirited creativity. She saw laziness instead. She burned, she said with the desire for motherhood and respectability, and not long after that, she met her love, a businessman who adored her bohemian charm. They had babies and they gave parties in their artfully appointed home. They traveled. He built her a studio over the garage.

It was an artful life, said Mags, but not an artist’s life. She had come to a day, way back there when she was a wild-eyed, dancing girl, when she had to decide which flame to fan. She never regretted her choice, but, she said, when you close that door…Oh, it stays so firmly shut.

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There’s a fine line, they say, between genius and insanity. Robert Lowell walked that razor’s edge, falling sometimes this way, sometimes that. Living on that terrifying ledge, he was able to make his art. His art enriched the world.

Mental illness does not guarantee artistry, and not all artists are mentally ill–I know firm-footed, completely grounded creators who produce work that makes one soar and dream and weep. But there is some open doorway there, in all creators, an access to a rooftop, maybe; it’s a vista reached by a hidden stairway not all of us can climb.

Maybe the fact of illness, for some people, unhooks the restraints that keep the rest of us tethered. Maybe there’s a moment of decision for every artist–a pivotal point like the one Mags remembered so well: rooftop or kitchen? Phoenix or LeSabre?

And some, maybe, put away the brushes and the clay and craft a life instead–a life often filled with beautifully sculpted meals and well-plotted family adventures and rich fabrics and doors that open to a fascinating fleet of friends. Life as collage, perhaps, responsible and well-ordered, yes—but tinged around the edges with a vibrant searing hue.

And the others–well, they throw themselves into the fire and let genius, as Jo March’s sisters said of her, burn. And what they forge! The songs and sonnets, tales and tableaux, paintings and sculptures. Masterpieces. In between, of course, there are the false starts and the flops, the mis-steps and mistakes. The artists throw those things back into the fire. They continue on.

They emerge sometimes to get cool, to rest from the unrelenting heat. But then, the creative brave ones, they dive back in. They sacrifice, those artists do, giving up a certain security, foregoing some sorts of domesticity–they enslave themselves to art.

If they live next door to us (unmowed lawn, lights blazing late at night), we might call them lunatics. If they are separated from us by time or geography, we deem them geniuses, and we scrimp and save to buy their creations, or to visit the museums that showcase their work.

What makes a person an artist? What calls a person to create?

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I don’t know, but I know I need it. I need the spice and rhythm and richness that artistry releases into the world. I need the direct contact with jolting, flooding feeling, with a different kind of worldview, with a willingness to walk an unmarked path.

I don’t know what conjures up the artist in a person, but I walk the busy studios on First Friday, I see the intensity and eager displays, and I am grateful beyond gladness that there are those–in any and in every time–who give their lives to art.

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Using What We’ve Got

We climbed the sweeping stone staircase into the Carnegie wing of our local library–into the oldest, original part, lovingly preserved through several renovations.  We walked through an arch into a long, high-ceiling, gracious room; it was a room which curved forward and beckoned visitors in and on.  The late afternoon light gentled in through soaring windows.

People mingled, chatting softly; a man bent to sign a guest book on a little table, mid-room, that also offered visitors a dipper of punch and a sweet little nosh. But mostly people browsed and angled, stepping up close to, backing away from, cocking their heads at, exploring from every angle, the colorful art of John Taylor-Lehman. ( http://www.taylor-lehman-studio.com/)

He’s a bottle cap artist, Taylor-Lehman is.  He pounds and flattens, cuts and trims; he molds and he builds up and out.  He works with the colors of the bottle caps themselves; he gradiates, for instance, the bottle-cap blues of a sky, deepening into the almost navy of Bud Light.

Mark stepped close to see how the caps attached to canvas. Nail gun, he posited.

There was a simple flower in a vase–happiness.  There was an intricately realistic sideview of a car (that one was ‘NFS’–claimed, already) On the grand piano, a dog sculpture stood about two feet high, complete with red, lolling, bottle cap tongue. Animals. Flowers. A leering skull, a preying water beast.

We marveled at the creativity.  We joked about the sacrifice many people must have made to empty all those bottles.

On the way out, we stopped to admire a sign Taylor-Lehman made to welcome people. It’s a carved and polished wooden bottle cap, maybe 18 inches round. “Use what you’ve got,” it reads.

I think about that all week.

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I think about, for instance, another local artist, a man known as the “Old Man from the Mountain,” “Blind Sculptor,” and “Boom Maker,” Rick Crooks. Crooks has been blind since age 16, when a gun accident robbed him of his eyesight, but he sees, ironically, things other people don’t. Crooks takes scraps–rusted metal gas cans, spent spark plugs, discarded tools, and he turns them into pieces of art–dragonflies and pelicans, turtles and alligators, tall giraffes and lumbering elephants. He uses the materials at hand. He hones the senses available to him.

Crooks’ work has been featured in private galleries. At the Y-Bridge Art Festival in Zanesville, Ohio, this August, his art won The People’s Choice award. Crooks takes what anyone else might call trash, what anyone else might throw away,–he takes the things he has– and he makes them into something compelling. (https://www.whiznews.com/2011/08/a-blind-artist-a-clear-vision/)

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I think about a wonderfully crafted, historically rich, mystery novel by Sandra Dallas, The Persian Pickle Club. Dallas tells the story of a group of women quilters in Dust Bowl Kansas in the 1930’s. They are farm wives and widows, mostly, or the businesses their husbands run depend upon the success of local farms to stay afloat. It is a time of parched drought and dangerous winds.

Queenie is the narrator, a valiant, young woman, buoyed by the love of a good man. Which is essential, because she has lost everyone else–parents dead, no extended family, and the baby she and Grover tried so hard to conceive born early with no chance of survival. The women of the Club surround and protect her, and still she is lonely–lonely for spark and adventure and youthful fun.

And that’s when Rita, the flashy, big city wife of Tom, Grover’s best friend, enters the scene.  Rita is rash and blunt and perfectly turned out.  She doesn’t understand the kind of life these women endure–the daily grind of farmwork appalls her.  And yet she tries to fit in, to match her hurried, slapdash stitches to the careful artistry of these women who have been quilting together, in one configuration or another, since the oldest of them received a gift of Persian Pickle fabric from her brand new husband years and years and years ago.

Rita comes to the quilters’ group with her mother-in-law; she admires the work of the women. She says that she wants to be a quilter, too, and she says she thinks that she’ll send Tom down to the five and dime to pick her up some  fabric so she can start.

There is a careful silence; the women don’t want to offend this hot-house flower, this exotic creature with whom Queenie longs, so deeply, to be friends. And then they reach into their bags of scraps, each of them, and they snip off bits of fabric.  They pass them to Rita. They tell her stories of where that fabric came from–whose dress, which shirt, which bridal bower. They anchor the swatches in time and place.  They give Rita the history of the bits and snippets of cloth they pass her way.

Because they know something Rita, for all her city ways and worldly knowledge, does not. They know that true art is created by salvaging the usable parts from the finally unredeemable dress, saving the scraps from the careful piecing of a shirt made for a hard-working brother, cutting the sheet–worn thin in the middle, into pieces for the scrap bag. Real art is made by taking these and crafting them into a blanket, a thing of beauty and vision.

Real art, Queenie knows, but cannot find the words to share with Rita–real art is made by using what you’ve got.

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Quilting wasn’t invented in the United States, but it seems to me a representation of the best kind of American spirit–that frontier, figure-it-out, what’s on hand, kind of passion and ingenuity. So you have the amazing creations of the women from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, an isolated hamlet that somehow encouraged generations of poor women to create bold, imaginative, out-of-the-box creations celebrated in a book called The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.(http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers)

You have the bridal quilt, carefully folded and wrapped in tissue, kept in an aging cedar chest–a gift to a young bride in 1890 from her new mother-in-law.  Made from scraps, made into what most women recognized as the wedding ring pattern, the quilt warmed the marriage bed, soothed sick children, flapped on a clothes line in an autumn wind, became a treasured heirloom.  A thing created from leftovers, castaway bits, become a family treasure.

Now we try to buy that quality, rather than creating it.

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Don’t get me wrong. There is something wonderful about purchasing a piece of art from a creator like John Taylor-Lehman, about proudly displaying one of Rick Crooks’ sculptures on the family shelves. But it seems to me we’ve lost that urge to improvise, that creative spark that says, Hmm. What do I have that I could use instead?

So we watch Chip and Joanna Gaines uncover and celebrate the ship-lap paneling in an old Texas house, and we think, “I want that!” And we go out and buy ship-lap paneling to apply to, say, our northeastern walls. And it looks great, probably–it’s wonderful to recreate a warm and welcoming household ambience.

But.

The point of a ‘fixer-upper’ is to fix what you’ve got. Maybe I should be thinking, What’s under MY wall?

I think about artistic friends, Kay and Brian, who renovated an old gas station into an amazing sprawl of a funky, innovative, smile-making home.  In their little bathroom, parts of the plaster wall have chipped away, revealing the brick beneath. Brian and Kay, instead of patching or covering, have celebrated and highlighted the exposed brick, and the bathroom’s charm benefits incredibly.  Exposed brick: the north’s answer to ship-lap?

Only if you’ve got it. Use what you’ve got.

There’s a reason we loved MacGyver so much, loved that he cracked an egg into an overheated radiator to plug up its leaks and make his escape in a rusting, supposedly useless, beater he leveraged in an arid southwestern town.  MacGyver could take what was on hand, spread out his choices, pick and choose and cut and trim to fit. He could make machines work and messages fly and bad guys stop.  MacGyver had that thing we called ‘Yankee Ingenuity.’

If he didn’t have what he needed, he used what he had to make it.

These days, we’d often just go out and buy it.

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I’m missing something, I think, when I do that. I’m missing something when I run out of disposable wet-pads for my Swiffer and think, Well, I can’t wash the floor! Then I run across a pattern on Pinterest that tells me how to knit Swiffer pads, and I think: Wait a minute. I go searching for my rag bag, and I pull out a batch of soft white t-shirts, worn thin and holey in the armpits, that Mark has just let go of.  I trace a Swiffer pad onto the stack of t-shirts. I cut the soft cloth, which fits snugly onto the cleaning tool. I mix up a batch of cleaning potion, and I dip the improvised Swiffer pad into it.

Huh.  Looky there. I AM able to clean my floor.

I slip old socks onto my duster instead of buying disposable refills for that, too.

I amaze myself by being able to clean without shopping.

Use what you’ve got, I think.

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And what else could I be doing? We need baskets for the eternally messy cubbies in the dining room, and I think about running to the home store to buy them. And then I remember the stack of boxes in the basement, shoe boxes and packing boxes–boxes that, when I bring them up and slide them into the openings, fit perfectly into the cubbies.  They’re not pretty, though, and they don’t match, but I’m thinking there’s got to be a way to make them do.

I think of mod podge and my stack of glossy magazines and I think I can morph those boxes into organizing containers that fit snugly into the currently messy spaces.

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I find a children’s book in a stack in my closet. It’s boldly illustrated in blacks and reds and yellows–the colors, in fact, are the same colors I favor in my kitchen.  The book is old and tattered and not worthy of sharing with a child, and I could throw it out. Or–I could dig out the old picture frames and my matting tools, buried under those boxes I want to re-purpose. I could cull the prettiest, brightest pictures. I could matte and frame and hang them in my kitchen.

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I’m thinking of using the sad, limp veggies in the crisper to make some broth.

I’m thinking of crunching up the last of the frosted flakes to make tiger cookies, a recipe I loved as a child.

I’m thinking of long-simmered stews and casseroles and skillets that deftly, tastily, combine the things we have on hand.

I’m thinking of gift wrap and greetings and the yarn patiently waiting in my big craft basket.

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I’m thinking, this week, of quelling the impulse to shop out my needs.

I’m thinking of how to embrace the challenge.

I’m thinking I need to get better at using what I’ve got.