Craft Matters

When Inspiration Cuts Deep: Agnes Martin

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Ashlyn at LACMA

The photograph here is my favorite from a summer adventure into Los Angeles last year with my daughter, Ashlyn. We played tourists hitting food hotspots on Sunset Boulevard, ascending the winding roads to Griffith Park, and shopping the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

But the highlight for me was a few hours spent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and discovering Agnes Martin. Agnes’s work was wholly new to me. Ashlyn was a good sport that morning accommodating my slow pace, but was tired standing and sat down. I took the opportunity to compose her squarely between two of Agnes’s paintings wishing to convey quiet contemplation. It was a perfect visual representation of what was a profound experience for me.

From the moment I entered the exhibit hall, my awareness was keenly heightened. What…is…this…I asked? Curiosity expanded to wonder and, with continued exploration, I felt hit with a gut punch of resonate connection and inspiration. The truth I felt in the work enveloped me and penetrated down to that level I can only identify as the soul.

For 30 minutes of so, I was elevated to a different plane of existence.

Agnes Martin (1912-2004) is a Canadian born American abstract painter. Often referred to as a minimalist, Martin described herself as an abstract expressionist. Inspired by Zen Buddhism, more as code of life ethics than a religious practice, Martin sought to pare down her compositions to reductive elements of simplicity that conveyed a transcendent reality. These truths, as she expressed them, were represented as hand drawn, painted lines, grids, and fields of fine ethereal color.

Martin was one of the few female artists who gained recognition in the male-dominated art world of the 1950s and ’60s. An elevated artist, she was also human. Agnes struggled with mental illness; she was diagnosed at one point as schizophrenic. She lived her adult life alone and held her homosexuality a secret. Martin’s later work is regionally associated with Taos, New Mexico. The desert environment and clarity of light must have been tremendous inspiration much as it was for Georgia O’Keeffe, another strong influence of mine.

Even now, writing this, I fondly remember that day. I acquired one of Martin’s coffee table books and while I cherish it, the book experience is a shadow of the museum experience. I believe that experience was one of those rarer moments in Life, where the inherent power of an artist’s work breaks through our clouded lives and shines light on our connected experience and understanding of the world. For me, my style and what I aspire to in my own work was affirmed and clarified. What I hold dear and truthful in my life felt celebrated. And, for 30 minutes, all my doubts and fears were erased.

We all deserve such an experience. Thank you Agnes Martin.

I cannot finish this post without acknowledging the political times (2017) we now live in with respect to art. The current administration is threatening dramatic cuts, even defunding of many arts and cultural programs. I doubt any of these mostly old crotchety white men have ever remotely experienced what I did that day in LACMA. If they did, they’d understand the essential role art plays in society and our understanding of history. It is, I believe, fundamental to our collective evolution as human beings.

Ode to Ruth Bernhard

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Viewport in my Home's Stairwell — an ode to Ruth Bernhard

“My quest, through the magic of light and shadow, is to isolate, to simplify and to give emphasis to form with the greatest clarity.” — Ruth Bernhard

I have a 3-story ascent of stairs in my home. It’s great daily exercise. And occasionally, in the stairwell, the light gifts me with inspiration, particularly in late afternoon when natural exterior and artificial interior lights converge. The inspiration and simplicity in this photograph conjured up the wisdom of Ruth Bernhard. If you’re interested in photography and not familiar with her, educate yourself. You’ll never see Lifesavers the same way again. Ruth passed away in 2006 at the too-young age, for her, of 101.

From the NY Times obituary:

Ms. Bernhard was known primarily for her dramatically lighted nude studies, which expressed her interest in abstract shape and form…. In 1935 a chance meeting with the photographer Edward Weston on the beach in Santa Monica, Calif., altered the course of Ms. Bernhard’s life. He became her mentor, and she studied with him for years. Seeing his pictures for the first time, she said, was a revelation. “It was lightning in the darkness,” she said. “Here before me was indisputable evidence of what I had thought possible — an intensely vital artist whose medium was photography.”

To have Edward Weston as a mentor… wow. Ruth reciprocated the generosity later in her life mentoring a number of people I’ve met and some I know personally. They all speak affectionately of her. If I can one day mentor, and affect people in a similar way, I’ll be truly grateful.

Reverence

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Stone Concretions: Zion National Park

Somewhere in Zion. Eight stone concretions. Natural forms born of ancient dunes. A magic blend of iron oxide and quartz sand grains forged by water, compression, and time. Harder in composition, the stones resist weathering and are slowly revealed out of their host sandstone.

To discover a clean unobstructed grouping like these is rare. And, for me, reverential. Like experiencing a great work of art, whether painted, sculpted, written or performed, deep emotions surface. Those emotions can evoke contemplation, elevation, even transformation.

Zion, as a whole, exists on an elevated plain of experience. For people discovering the park for the first time, the canyons, the spires, even the cobalt blue skies evoke awe and inspiration. But within nature’s grand domain here, there are smaller, more nuanced nooks to experience and learn from. They require broader exploration, a slowing down, careful attention, intuition, even luck.

My evolution as a photographer has turned into a mission to celebrate these subtler subjects. I strive through composition, and ultimately, the photographic print, to convey found subject matter in a significant, meaningful way. My goal is simple yet challenging; to promote awareness and, ultimately, reverence for the less obvious in the world.

If I can inspire people to appreciate the magic of eight stone concretions, then maybe I can help cultivate a greater sense of openness and empathy in the world outside Zion.

It’s what, I believe, Art is meant to do.

Drought

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Creative, that is.

For the last few years, despite an unprecendented environmental drought in the region, my photographic work here in Zion has enjoyed a vernal-like productivity.

Not this year.

Even writing, something the landscape routinely inspires me to, is a challenge.

I know I’m not supposed to question this. Creative droughts happen. Productivity is not assured. All you can do is do the work. Maybe offer up a few prayers. Anything else is just mental machinations disruptive to the sacred relationship between artist and muse.

Ha! If only it were that simple. My nature is ruled by a need to understand, to make sense of things. In my artistic pursuit, I strive to convey the depth of my understanding, visually, as photographs. That, I believe, is one of the primary jobs I’m here to do on this planet.

So, yeah, you could say all this has me a bit flummoxed.

I have a life coach, Jess Klein, a talented singer/songwriter based in Austin, Texas. We talk via Skype every couple weeks. She suggested I read a book, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. In it, he coins the principle enemy of creative productivity, Resistance. Resistance is essentially your egoisitc self, operating from a pleasure-based, fear-avoidance, materialistic foundation. Resistance is comfort, complacency, contrition. In an evolutionary sense, it’s the staus-quo. Everything is fine just the way it is. There’s no reason to pursue a higher calling, to realize your own unique individual potential. It’s herd mentality. Survive. Don’t die.

Personified, Resistance is a tricky devil. You may not even recognize it. It comes at you from all directions, manifested in fear, procrastination, avoidance, distraction, even self-destructive behavior. In short, those often glamourized behaviors we love to associate with the “struggling” artist.

But, the struggle is real, Pressfield argues. The key to overcoming it? Awareness. That may seem a tad bit obvious. Still, I have to agree with Pressfield, the deeper you’re embedded in resisting Resistance, the subtler, more cunning it seems to become.

So, I’m taking an inventory check. Is Resistance now at play in new ways I’m not aware of? My gut says “yes”. Now, the challenge is to figure out how. All while still doing the work I’m here to do.

So, this post is my first official step.

Fair warning, Resistance, I’m coming for you.

Commitment

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This quote by William Hutchison Murray was given to me earlier today, the ideas of which I’ve encountered before, but not quite so eloquently:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness concerning all acts of initiative and creation. There is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans; that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen events, meetings and material assistance which no one could have dreamed would have come their way.

The difference this time? These words, these ideas, these inspirations — I was ready to receive them.

Awe-some

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Saturn's Rings - NASA

The rings of Saturn courtesy the Cassini orbiter, a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1.4 million miles (2.3 million kilometers) from Saturn and at a Sun-Saturn-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 152 degrees. Image scale is 86 miles (138 kilometers) per pixel.

86 miles per pixel. Whoa.

Find more inspiration at NASA’s Photojournal.

Northbound 35

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Here, a live version of one of my favorite songs from the consummate singer/songwriter, Jeffrey Foucault. I wrote Jeffrey a few years back, a 3:30 am inspiration while creating this star trail image beneath Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. The image’s related lyrics:

And the sky spun around
With her diamonds on fire

Jeffrey eventually responded, offering thanks and then musing:

I sat on that song for a few years because it didn’t seem that good to me, but it’s been the one that resonated most with people so far.

Last September, I drove 6 hours to Spokane, Washington, to hear Jeffrey play. It was my only opportunity prior to leaving for two months to Zion. The night before, I’d emailed Jeffrey a request to play Northbound 35. Upon arrival (late), I was fortunate to snag a lone seat in the front row. The set list was right below me:

Jeffrey Foucault Set List

Sometimes you meet the artist and, sadly, they don’t measure up to their work.

Jeffrey Foucault is not one of those artists.

A Fuji Velvia Christmas

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Fuji Velvia 50 - Transparency Details

Christmas came early this week. AgX Imaging, one of the last (and best) of the E-6 film processors in the country, returned my film from the Zion National Park trip. I’m teasing, here, a cross-section of some promising transparencies which I plan to print in the darkroom once the holidays are over.

There is an elation, a love really, viewing these images on the light table. Their luminous beauty, and the eventual photographic prints they herald, affirms my commitment to the medium of film. That film, Fuji Velvia 50 (4×5), is now only available from Japan, extremely expensive, and will eventually be discontinued. Fortunately, I have enough frozen stock (about 500 sheets) to continue making images for 2-3 years. This purposely coincides with my 4-year inventory of Ilfochrome paper and chemistry.

While bittersweet, it’s comforting to know Velvia, my light table, and I will enjoy a few more Christmases together.

Perspectives

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Two weeks ago. 4:00 a.m. wake up. Final items packed in the truck. A deep bow to Mukuntuweap, my home and muse for the last two months.

On the road. I-215 south to Vegas. Coffee-fueled. I’ve just finished the audiobook Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. I’m contemplative, entranced by spoken words, the hypnotic buzz of the road, and the vast landscape moving around me.

Well northeast of Las Vegas, in the middle of nowhere, nature calls. I pull off, step out into the rain-clarified pre-dawn air, and take care of business. I take some conscious, meditatively deep breaths. Then, turning back to the truck, I notice these lines in the earth:

Paint Lines along HWY 215 - Nevada

It seems Nevada DOT felt the urge to test their road painting equipment here along this dirt pull out. This is picture worthy, I decide, and grab my iPhone from the truck. I snap the photograph seen here and look at the result on the screen. This perspective has the lines moving away from me, coming to an abrupt halt. The end of the road, so to speak.

This gives me pause. I am not at the end of the road, am I? I wonder about this. I’m 18 months into a life-changing move to Bend, Oregon. I’m heading towards a fundamental change in the focus and structure of my life. I’m simulatneously exhilirated and scared as hell. And I know, to succeed, there are personal challenges of openess, trust, and receptivity I’m going to have to overcome. A quote from the beginning of Art and Fear:

“Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward.”

Exactly. And, begrudgingly, I must admit that’s not something I’m very good at. At all. I’ve spent my life working for others, abiding in the safety of proving my worth to someone else’s needs and vision. Now it’s time to prove my worth to myself and my own vision. Maybe this photograph is symbolic, symbolic of a past I’m in the process of letting go of.

I snap back into the moment. How long have I been standing here deep in these thoughts? The sun is poking rays of light through a patchwork of clouds to the east.

I can go now. But, before I climb back into the truck, I make a different, considered photograph — one symbolic of my path forward:

Paint Lines along HWY 215 - Nevada

A testament to a brief but significant moment in the middle of nowhere.

Breakthrough

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Breakthrough - Zion National Park

There are moments. Very personal, resonate moments. Moments you hesitate to write about for fear of diminishing their significance. Because, despite their gravity, they are ephemeral, they float in the outer edge of awareness, in spirit. To put words to the experience risks obscuring the essence of what you feel compelled to communicate.

In such moments of hesitation, I draw on the words of Mary Oliver:

Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

So, I will.

In my artistic pursuits, I had a breakthrough. It occurred up Zion Canyon, along a cliff-protected slope of stately trees I’d visited many times before. It was near dusk. My intent was to make a photograph framing a tall regal maple, its leaves gloriously carmine and crimson, sheltered high up at the base of the towering cliff. But everywhere I could manage an angle of view to the tree, the composition failed.

As I moved, and emotionally let go of my original intent, my attention was drawn to an opening of grass and flowers harboring a single tree with lustrous leaves of lemon and gold. The sun, now setting, lit a thin veil of stratus creating a soft box of white ambient light. The wind, gusting earlier, had settled, and with it, a peaceful air enveloped the space around me. The white flowers glowed like suspended snowflakes. The grass shown a rainbow of green. I transfixed to the scene before me and felt a slow rising tide of awareness. The elements of grass, flowers, tree, slope, background, texture, color, and light, all taken together made sense to me in a way I had previously not understood.

I bloomed with elation. And, simulatenously, felt a flowering of doubt. The doubt is important. It is, I believe, a uniquely human questioning rooted in a need for affirmation that an idea, feeling, or experience is essential and good. Its presence, accepted with grace, affirms the elation and empowers you to move forward.

So, I did.

Intently, intimately, I moved through the scene, honing into what I perceived to be the best composition expressing this new awareness. In the end, the placement of my view camera to make the photograph was precisely where the scene had revealed itself, a rarity for me.

The image may ultimately be a failure. I haven’t received the processed film back and I’m well versed in the fact that inspiration and execution don’t always agree. But the iPhone image that accompanies this post encouraged me to write while the ideas were fresh in memory and feeling. And, even if the film image isn’t successful, something essential was affirmed — a breakthrough in my photographic continuum along a path of elation and doubt that never fails to astonish me.