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.

Duty in the Age of Trump

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So far 2017 has been painful for me. I’ve never felt such concern and trepidation over a new administration. My birthday was January 19th, President Barack Obama’s last day in office. There was no celebration.

January 20th, as Donald Trump took the oath of office, I worked in the darkroom, making photographic art, an act of solitary resistance to an untenable political situation. Emerging from my own confinement, I learned of budget proposals intended to cut funding to institutions including the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). And, later, a bill introduced to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Madness.

On one hand, I get it. I’m not stupid. No blind liberal allegiance here. We’ve moved into a period of conservative backlash. Eight years of Obama, and the liberal institutions he stood for are under fire. Modern Conservatives don’t particularly care to culturally acknowledge the importance of the arts, responsible journalism, or a healthy natural environment. But this administration seems to think they hold no value at all. It doesn’t matter the federal budget impact is negligible; it won’t move the needle. One less B1 bomber would fund the NEA, NEH, CPB, and EPA for decades. This is war, a cultural war.

And what’s going on now is anything but normal compared to previous Republican administrations. The administrations of Reagan and Bush Sr. suddenly seem liberal compared to the angry isolating populist rise represented by Trump.

I tell myself, I can live with this. I recognize the cyclical nature of government. We’re a two party society and we ebb and flow every 8-12 years between the two. The long view back through history, still shows progress. We evolve. As a society, we’ve grown more inclusive, more progressive, more emphatic.

But this is different. The lack of economic progress for the abandoned predominately white middle class has spawned a resentful angry movement. A movement that propelled an angry puppet voice, Trump’s, into office. Someone wholly unqualified for the responsibility, the diginity, the fairness, the empathy such a position holds. Instead we have an administration of propaganda, leveraging the psychology of fear, to push policies, that, upon reasonable investigation, don’t legitimately address real problems. The world has changed, dramatically, in this new information age. Globalization and automation are fundamentally changing business worldwide. The administration’s proposed solutions: cut taxes, negotiate new trade agreements, build walls, all don’t address the fundamental challenges. They’ll just prove a waste of taxpayer money. A failure of true change.

The assault on principles and institutions I hold dear, at a time, when I myself, figuratively at least, am jumping off a cliff of security into an unknown artistic path, only heightened my own fears. I was in Zion with a friend on election night, a slow dread infecting me as it became increasingly clear Trump was going to win. At one point, anxious thoughts penetrated my disbelief. Is this the right time to quit my job? Is this the right time to pursue art as a primary vocation. Is this fucking nuts?

I simmered those thoughts a few days. Did some reading. Searched for inspiration. And found it.

It came in the form of a weekly newsletter, Brain Pickings, a passion project of Maria Popova that explores issues of philosophy, love, art, and growth. In short, self-actualization, a dangerous word to Conservatives. An article transported me to 1964 and an Amherst College address by our 35th president, John F. Kennedy. The speech honored one of our great American poets, Robert Frost, an anthem to a man who exemplified living his own words, “the road less traveled”. A truly inspirational listen, the speech is a call to civic service and a meditation on the value of art in society.

There, in the midst of my dilemna, one passage took hold:

“If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.”

Hearing this, a wave of conviction rose in me. Here I am fretting over the possible implications of this new administration and whether they could be detrimental to my own interests. It doesn’t matter. This is what I must do. If anything, the fact of the Trump administration and its assaults on values I hold dear, are all the more reason I must do this now.

It is my duty.

Endings and Beginnings

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Hello 2017.

Could it get any more cliché to welcome you as a new beginning?

Well, for once, this cliché isn’t some resolution-filled false promise I’d break in two weeks. That’s right. With 2017, this shit gets real.

Two weeks ago my life in the cog of the corporate employment wheel ended. What’s next is a big TBD, a process I plan to openly share here on this blog and hopefully elsewhere.

I’d like to take this moment to thank my life of the past 20+ years. Some of it was particularly amazing: 10 years at Apple during the Steve Jobs reign, 16+ years a father to a blossoming daughter, learning a beloved craft in analog photography, gaining some new life-long friends, watching the San Jose Sharks finally make the Stanley Cup. And, most importantly, building a career that eventually enabled me to leave it. That’s some ironic gratitidue. Thanks corporate employment, from the bottom of my heart, for enabling me to leave you. I’m not sure I would’ve had the courage otherwise.

Now, some of those years, as Life often dictates, weren’t particularly swell. A divorce, some years just-showing up at work, remote elderly care obligations and the loss of my nuclear family. Plus a few less than ideal coping mechnisms, most notably, a developed acumen for appreciating fine wine and spirits. I ignored the fact that, after two drinks, you lose the ability to appreciate. Some hobbies may be better left unexplored.

But here I am, writing this post in a little rented apartment just outside Zion National Park in the town of Springdale, Utah. I’m in the company of my greatest muse. The weather has been cold and cloudy, filled with flat light, less than ideal for good photography. Somehow, that’s appropriate. This is self-inventory time. Time to review what’s worked, what hasn’t and what, going forward, fits the mantra in a never-ending quest to become more of who I am and aspire to be.

This is the path less taken, a new beginning that, on many levels, terrifies me. Which means, it’s exactly where I’m supposed to be.