30 years ago, I left Iowa with an MFA in my pocket. My destination was a rural location in Eastern Washington to house sit for Ben Frank Moss, a former professor. Essentially, in exchange for care-taking and getting the house ready for their return in the summer months, my family lived almost rent free for 10 months and I could paint to my heart’s content. It was a great gift.
Leaving behind the tumult, angst and intensity of 3 years of grad school (plus having a child in the middle of it) was a wonderful opportunity … a chance to catch my breath before starting on the yearly academic job hunting routine. It was a good year- very productive and I felt I could authentically respond to the landscape around me.
Recently, after reading a book about Swedish Death Cleaning (yes, apparently it’s a thing) I thought I’d go through some old journals. I also found an old folder of letters from friends and professors and faculty at other institutions from this period. Some of them date back to those tumultuous years in grad school, some came after when I began meeting colleagues around the country.
During my first year in the program, I couldn’t quiet my mind and settle down – and was feeling unmoored – but I was encouraged by a teacher I respected, not to give up. I needed to get tougher, more ambitious and work harder and in 10-12 years I would be able to find my painterly voice. At the time, that seemed like such a long road ahead, but now looking back , it really was about 10 years, before I found a subject matter that really moved me, and that provided the motivation to dive deeper into the content.
There was a constant flow of visiting artists that came through the building. Thanks in large part to how connected the faculty was to their own studio work and the larger art world. Sometimes they reinforced what I was hearing from others, sometimes they were totally on their own trip, and had a hard time relating to what I was trying to manifest.
Elizabeth Murray encouraged us to have ambition for the work, not for it’s own sake
Howard Rogovin – “don’t be afraid to let the work evolve into something else” …it could encompass “beauty and loss, poetry and strength”
John Dunn, who was a former theology student – spoke of the urge to “see the vision” the compelling reason that we need to keep painting – and the four things at work in making a painting (or a life) : Habit – Will – Memory – Chance
I wanted air and light in my work. I was captivated by an atmosphere that was almost palpable but not at the expense of things literally dissolving away. I was encouraged to get contrast, clarity, or definite edge in the work- ie: things were often too gauzy or soft.
Selina Trieff –it’s all a matter of “back and forth-ing”
Sometimes I felt that people were gradually chipping away at what I came with, which is another way to say that we were constantly being challenged- learning to trust our instincts as they were informed by growing skill and questioning.
I was a good 10 years older than many of my cohorts, and perhaps felt the added pressure of making up for lost time. My personal life was more settled in some ways, but my studio life was far less sure. I could not make visible what I thought I wanted every time, but at least I was becoming more aware of my own language and voice.
I fixed on this quote from Nicholson Baker in the Atlantic, “ If your life is like my life, there are within it short sections…when your mind achieves a polished and complicated coherence. Your opinions become neat and unruffled-able…you are firm, you think fast, you offer delicately phrased advice. Such intermissions of calm are very rare in any case. Most of the time we are in some middle phase of changing our minds about many, if not all, things. We have no choice. Changes of mind should be distinguished from decisions, for decisions seem to reside in the present, while changes of mind imply habits of thought, a slow crystallization of truth, a partially felt, dense past.”
Slowly, things did begin to crystalize for me. Every once in a while, I began to make the intangible become visible and my mind could fall into intermissions of calm.
Still chasing after those moments…