Archive for April, 2021

Master builder

There’s a nice video on YouTube about Philip Reed, a professional model builder: “a man who has committed his life to his craft; a lifetime of scrutinising detail, obsession, perfectionism, and in the end, something truly beautiful.” The short film is more reverential than instructive, if you want to know how he actually does what he does, but some of his comments in the video certainly resonate:

I remember Gerald Cooper, a very renowned painter. One day he just stood and looked at us for a while. He said, “I’m going to tell you the secret to happiness. Get up every morning and paint a flower before breakfast.” That is what he loved to do. So the first thing he did in the morning was that which he loved.

I think of them as three-dimensional paintings.

There are many times when little is achieved. There is frustrating research to be carried out and dead times when nothing seems to move forward. But then there are many others when the work just flows and you enter a very quiet space. Time passes effortlessly.

I go through very dark times sometimes. A recent model I’ve been building, every day has been struggle. It’s difficult. I need focus. The work is very fine. I don’t want to be there. But if you keep going you discover something new and suddenly it’s as if the sun’s come out and I’m loving what I’m doing again.

There are moments of excitement and pleasure when you start to see it come together. If you can get the tone, the color, and everything blend together, that final stage, working through it, is a joy.


Engaging in creative work can be, at its best, a mystical experience. I don’t know what is behind the creation of art. It’s something innate in man. It’s one of the profound mysteries in human life: creative work and art.

Susan Jane Walp

Four Figs, Two Swans, and Pair of Scissors, 2017, oil on linen, 10.125 x 10″

Matt Klos invited me to sit in on a group Zoom last week with Susan Jane Walp, hosted by Klos and Candice Hill, who teaches in the English Department at Anne Arundel Community College, where Matt teaches painting. Walp has a quiet, distinguished career, living in Vermont, studying Tibetan Buddhism and painting and doing little else, having moved there from Soho where she worked in the 80s. It was a long, interesting conversation partly because so much of it felt attenuated by Walp’s difficulty in putting the most essential elements of what she does into words. That’s refreshing, a person of few words in an era where we live under a tsunami of social media inanity. A lot of the discussion was about a series of improvisational paintings she’s done as a meditation on the loss of her husband six years ago, paintings that somehow remind me of Jung’s The Red Book images, not in form but in spirit—as if she has been sketching emotional and spiritual archetypes drawn from her own subconscious. These are quite different from her core work in still life. What I found most useful was the discussion of these still lifes on linen.

The most interesting questions and answers were on how her work in oil resolves itself into something she considers finished; how she manages to keep the process feeling alive and risky after investing long days and weeks or months into a given painting; and what her primary considerations are, the core values, she tries to observe in the process of making a painting.

This last issue was very appropriate to this particular conversation, because Candice Hill specializes in lyric poetry with a focus on Emily Dickinson and found many parallels between Dickinson’s sidelong, elliptical poetry and Walp’s spare, improvisational watercolors. Walp has said she draws inspiration from Dickinson’s poems, their paradoxical sense of scale, particularly in Dickinson’s ability to evoke cosmic truth through such a tiny pillar of words on the page. That use of scale links her with Dickinson: the leverage involved in using something small to evoke something big. Walp’s paintings feel in some ways even smaller than Dickinson’s gnomic lines. Walp said: “Even in these paintings that are quite small, eight inches by eight inches, if that relationship becomes accurate (between the precise detail and the more indefinite lines of larger areas), I feel there’s something big about the painting.” Given this indebtedness to poetry, it wasn’t shocking that Walp cited Elizabeth Bishop, who was a serious painter as well as a uniquely great poet, as someone who perfectly articulated the three qualities creative work must have. Bishop said every poem needs to be accurate, spontaneous, and mysterious. Walp wants her paintings to hew to those rules.

There is a tremendous tension implicit in those first two qualities. How to be both improvisational and accurate seems to be a core competency for perceptual painters in general and a difficult tightrope to walk for any painter. (Fairfield Porter managed to balance accuracy and spontaneity perfectly again and again toward the end of his career, but Walp’s work doesn’t owe much to the way Porter handled paint, except in a few instances.)

Walp said: “In Dickinson the thing that has struck me in my non-scholarly reading of her work is the way that she can go from some very almost microcosmic detail to just the macrocosm. This idea of scale; how there can be an infinite space in such a physically small poem. That’s something I aspire to certainly in the still lifes . . . Bishop’s . . . three criteria for evaluating poems: accuracy, spontaneity and mystery. I’ve spent a lot of time working on the spontaneity. The mystery is divine grace. It’s given to you in certain work.” MORE

Lydia, oh Lydia

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Agnieszka Nienartowicz

The ultimate tramp stamp. Amazing work from a young Polish artist, evoking both Bosch and Richter, with a cautionary twist to the allure it conveys.

The famous little patch of yellow

Vermeer’s “View of Delft”

I find it encouraging that the greatest philosopher and the greatest novelist of the 20th century agreed about some fundamental, crucial things, at about the same time, early in the century. It seems everyone else except maybe T.S. Eliot were heading in the opposite direction—Nietzsche a bit earlier, the modernists in art, Einstein in physics, Freud in his field, Marx in economics and politics–all of them striving to destabilize the values and norms of the Western world. Meanwhile, Wittgenstein and Proust were suggesting that the most fundamental realities hadn’t changed at all and would never change, even though many didn’t understand this about the philosopher, and it this isn’t immediately obvious in Proust, given the structure of his virtually plotless novel, a tapestry of interwoven stories that evolve almost imperceptibly toward his majestic renunciation of society in favor of art.

Wittgenstein, whose efforts have been camouflaged by his role as the patron saint of analytical 20th century philosophy, asserted that human values can’t be derived from our experience in the world. They exist outside the world, and thus, in a sense, can’t be analyzed or deduced, but are simply a given, transcendent and immune to rational justification or questioning. They have no utility. They just are. You don’t “adopt” them to make the world a better place (on what grounds would one chose a set of values that give you the rules for calculating which values are best?). Goodness is an unassailable framework within which human purposes evolve and can be understood. Goodness and truth and beauty govern human behavior, as the essential structure of human experience, whether or not an individual is conscious of them or not. In other words, Wittgenstein actually had a metaphysics, about which he forbade himself to talk, because its truth was impossible to prove, hence the famous last line of the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent.” However, he meditated quite a bit on these values during that silence. He carried around a copy of Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief all through his service in World War I, and he relinquished one of the largest inheritances in Europe. He seriously considered becoming a monk at one point. These transcendent values he lived, rather than asserted, because he appeared to consider them impossible to justify through reason or philosophical language. His silence about everything that actually mattered seems, in retrospect, almost uniquely noble and honest.

One finds a similar point of view, an even more Platonic one, from Marcel Proust in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, written during the years Wittgenstein wrote his Tractatus, about the death of Proust’s fictional novelist, Bergotte. In The Captive, he talks about the role of the creative imagination, in painting and fiction and music. These thoughts precede one of the great revelatory moments in the story, when Morel’s musical performance triggers for the narrator a crucial moment of enlightenment about the nature of art. (It is typical of Proust that Morel is one of his few genuinely evil characters, the embodiment of sadistic cruelty, yet he is also, despite his depravity, a rare musical genius, one of God’s messengers, as it were, through the medium of the violin.) This passage makes Proust’s narrator sound a bit like a Cathar or a Buddhist, but his essential point is that human beings don’t pick and choose their “values;” those values precede and ground all human choices and behavior, and people spend their lives struggling to simply see them and exemplify them as directly as possible, to live “beneath the sway of those unknown laws”—an achievement that is, like a great golf swing or a sumi-e painting—both unconscious and ego-less, almost automatic, when done perfectly, and yet immensely difficult to “get right”:

He was dead. Dead forever? Who can say? . . . All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be forever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there—those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only—if then!—to fools. So the idea that Bergotte was not permanently dead is by no means improbable.

–The Captive