Thursday, August 11, 2011

Primary Colors, Easels, and Smocks

A couple of weeks ago I finished Richard Ellmann's James Joyce, having slugged through it for about two months. There is more straight biography in the book than literary criticism, though one certainly does get a good sense of what Joyce was aiming for with the writing. But that is not why one should read it. I'm not really sure why I did. Perhaps it was to find a hero. There don't seem to be many around nowadays. Better to look for one in the past; one who has stood the test of time. As I wrote previously, there are a bunch of superficial similarities between us and perhaps a few not so superficial ones as well. His commitment to his work, however, was total, more than I can muster. And it consumed him. He also was more intimidating and overtly critical than I believe I am. More interesting than the heroism is to find how much correspondence mattered to him (much of which Ellmann reproduces). Joyce was a prolific writer of letters and he expected his correspondents to respond in turn. Where his novels are fantastic in their language, his letters are grounded. Given his struggles to generate income and get his worked published, much of this writing was concerned with those ends in some way. But with that he developed affection for those who helped him so the correspondence was also concerned with their welfare. His life revolved around those people, his family, and his work. While his work was also fantastic in its complexity in view, many highly educated people couldn't make heads or tails of it, he found delight in very simple and ordinary things. Yet these pleasures too began to wane. As his physical limitations became more pronounced, particularly his declining eyesight, he withdrew into silence, even in a social setting. I wonder if we all develop a preference to be alone with our thoughts as we get on in years.

I am now reading a book by Marion Milner called On Not Being Able To Paint, originally written under the pen name Janet Sayres. I learned of this book from reading Eric Hoffer's Between the Devil and the Dragon. He referred to Milner's work as an extraordinary book. Liking Hoffer, I took him up on the suggestion. This is my second time making a go at this book. I had meant to read it last summer, but stuff got in the way. And it didn't really click with me the first time. She has ink sketches scattered through the book and I didn't understand what she was saying about them. I thought to myself, I'm not really a visual person. I don't have the patience to deal with other people's descriptions of things, when those aren't immediate to me. As it turns out, there is much irony in this.

Milner's book is fundamentally about impediments to creativity, which are mainly about fear. She describes a struggle within herself, between wanting to rely on the down to earth, logical, take things as they are person of common sense, the part of her persona she had come to trust, and the imaginative, subjective, self that seemed to intrude, because the matter of fact way seemed lifeless, but imposing one's own personal solutions on reality seemed frightening, perhaps delusional. As it turns out, though I hadn't thought about the first time I took a crack at Milner's book, I had written seriously about something quite similar in my book chapter, Just the Facts and Guessing, where I tried to work through the objective/subjective approach for teaching and learning, ultimately coming down on the subjective side. (If you are going to make sense of complex things you will ultimately impose your worldview on it. You may go through a variety of practices and procedures that are logical and scientific, but ultimately there will be much residual complexity and you'll have to make a judgment on which pieces to emphasize.) I've also tried to bring in some of this thinking to my teaching by having students write blogs and in doing that encouraging to tie their own personal experiences to the subject matter under study. I can't say that has worked very well most of the time, but surely it is evidence that I was ripe to read Milner's book.

Nevertheless I struggled with it the first time through. I was having the old fear, that I wouldn't get it. That stopped me. So I put it down. Having picked it up again about a year later, I'm wondering what was so hard in the first place. That got me wondering and this post is really about that.

I didn't take art after elementary school. (Saying that, I'm a bit conflicted in what I remember and may have taken art in 7th and 8th grade, on a once a week basis, but definitely not beyond that.) In junior high we had eight periods. Five of those were academic: math, science, social studies, English, and French. Then there was gym and lunch. That left either music or art, but not both. I was in the band. Goodbye art. In high school, I was in the band in 9th grade but after that took multiple science classes and/or multiple math classes. I also stopped taking French. Goodbye culture, at least insofar as school was concerned.

I did have art in grade school, particularly the early years. There was a lot of coloring. You did that at your desk with construction paper and Crayola crayons. I have a recollection of progressing a grade and then going to the 64 pack of crayons as something really fantastic and adult, such nuance in the color variation, though it provided a potential I couldn't reach. I always pressed too hard and dulled the point of the crayon too quickly. And sometimes the stick would break in the middle from the pressure I put on it. It's a funny thing, I don't remember any pleasure in that from when I was young but when my kids were small and we'd go out to dinner and the waitress would invariably bring some crayons and paper menus with outlines that could be filled in, I had a yen to do that. Part of that was just to get the kids engaged. But another part was for me alone. I'm not sure where that came from. I had similar feelings with the big Legos and the Lincoln Logs when playing with the kids on the floor.

We didn't do painting at our desks; we did it in the back of the classroom. Painting was messy, ergo the smock. The paint would get all over the place. It was okay to get it on your hands and maybe even on the furniture. That would wash off. But it shouldn't get on your clothes. The sheets of paper we painted on were very large, bigger than the surface of the desks. I think we used the easels mainly as a way to hold the paper, not really to provide a vertical perspective of what we were painting, because the objects were from memory or our imaginations. We didn't do portraits. There wasn't the skill for that. Indeed, my skill level was so minimal that for quite a while my goal was to keep the paint from dripping and spoiling the picture. At that time fine motor skills were a particular challenge, one that often got the better of me. How can one tell if there is too much paint on the brush? And why waste time holding the brush over the jar of paint after its been dipped in it to let the excess drip off? The impulse of what to do with the brush might be lost that way.

I recall becoming fond of mixing the paints. I liked the result when white was mixed with blue. The sky was an important feature in many of my efforts and that was how to produce it, different from the clouds but blending in with them nicely. It also seemed to be the case that when mixing two primary colors the result would be good and interesting but when mixing three or more (I'm counting black and white here as well as red, yellow, and blue) the result always ended up brown. And it seemed that once you got brown it stayed that way, even if you would add more primary color. The brown so produced was ugly, like a wet mud. I learned to stay away from it if I could. Indeed, many of the life lessons I took from painting as a kid were about things not to do. It wasn't so much an affirmation of self-expression as it was a negation of making too much of a mess.

I puzzled whether subconscious feelings along those lines explained why I struggled with Milner. It seemed plausible but not quite right. I didn't stop taking art in school for those reasons. I stopped because what seemed important at the time was stuff to learn that had been produced by others, whether history or science or ideas from elsewhere. Making stuff of your own just didn't seem as necessary. Though there was self-expression in my academic studies, it was far less explicit than it was in art. So I chose the academic path. Having now reached an age where self-expression seems so important to me, I feel chagrined for having blocked this particular outlet at such an early age. And I felt inadequate to read Milner. Normally I come at ideas in two distinct ways, one based on what others have to say about the matter, and a second way of my own creation. I then spend some time reconciling the two or weaving them together. With Milner's book, however, I could not do that.

In this second pass at the book, I'm treating painting as an example of a creative outlet, but only an example. (Writing is a different example.) In what I've read so far, most of the issues Milner discusses have their counterparts in other creative activity. My experience as a writer, then, helps me to understand what Milner says about her painting. Now I find I'm in her corner. In the tension between the subjective and objective she gradually shifts to an endorsement of letting the self open up. It is primary. We won't destroy the objective in the process. Instead, we'll liven things up, for ourselves and maybe for others too.

I wonder where I'd be now if I had believed that in grade school.

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