A while ago, on a trip to Sydney, I bought “Reading Chekhov: A critical journey” by Janet Malcolm. I was humbled by the ease with which Malcolm guided me into the depths of Chekhov’s writing. As the blurb says, “after reading this book, it is impossible not to want to go and re-read [Chekhov]“
However, in the end it was Malcolm’s observations about her Russian journey in Chekhov’s footsteps, and the references she encountered, that stayed with me. She describes the suffering of poet Anna Akhmatova:
Her fortitude in the face of suffering and loss – her first husband was shot by the Bolsheviks, her only son was imprisoned three times, for a total of thirteen years, her friend and fellow poet Osip Mandelstam died in a labor camp, as did her third husband…
Malcolm quotes Nadyezda Mandelstam, the widow of the poet:
Of everything that happened to us, what was most significant and powerful was the fear and what it produced – a loathsome feeling of disgrace and impotence.
Malcolm describes the context in which these people lived:
the stoicism and courage and consistent good conduct during a period when just being decent was to take your life in your hands.
Winter again in New Zealand. The gray weather drives me to the studio and back to Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. Reading Pessoa as the rain falls on a wintry Saturday, grey all around, coffee brewing, inner darkness becomes fruitful.
I understand why so many people loathe Pessoa’s explicit hopelessness. Yet I am drawn to his prose in the same way as to the beautiful Nothingness of deep meditation. One sinks in and becomes aware of being contained – in all aspects of life and death – by something infinitely open:
Divided between tired and restless, I succeed in touching – with the awareness of my body – a metaphysical knowledge of the mystery of things…To cease, to sleep, to replace this intermittent consciousness with better, melancholy things, whispered in secret to someone who doesn’t know me!
Fernando Pessoa “Book of Disquiet”
Thanks for reading my blog. It is my wish that you be safe, happy and content.
A garden path, late afternoon sunlight, late autumn. Pink highlights and cool shadows, memories of summer. I painted this over a rather somber grey abstract. I like the luscious streaks of oil paint, the abstractness of shapes and tones.
Perhaps there is a question in there somewhere, in those interactions between light and shadow. Everything points. In the face of this ephemeral life without guarantees, how to escape the shadow of anxiety? Rollo May wrote:
Anxiety is not an affect among other affects, such as pleasure or sadness. It is rather an ontological characteristic of man, rooted in his very existence as such.
While painting this I thought of Ryokan and his hut in the forest, being overgrown by ivy year by year:
My hut lies in the middle of a dense forest;
Every year the green ivy grows longer.
No news of the affairs of men,
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
The sun shines and I mend my robe;
When the moon comes out I read Buddhist poems.
I have nothing to report, my friends.
If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.
Ryokan, trans. John Stevens, in One Robe, One Bowl
Thanks for stopping by my blog. I hope you are happy and content.
Last week, one day after work I trudged into my studio – tired and anxious about something at work – I had little hope of painting anything I liked. But I know by now that getting that first dash of paint down is the key – after that, curiosity and magic takes over.
In this case, my lack of expectation helped me to bring a spontaneous energy to this rather complex scene. The result is one of my favorite paintings of this year. There is a certain tone of color, combined with near abstract mark-making, that makes this one special to me:
I have been fairly consistently turning out one painting a day. More and more, I paint simply but for the love of making marks – alone in my studio, a light awareness permeating the room.
Painting on a regular basis, even when my energy is low, has helped me to paint with more abandon, less expectation and less anxiety. I am sure some of you can relate to the value of just focusing on quantity – at least for some stages of your artistic journey. If you are interested in this theme, I recommend you read through points #4 and #8 on my Creativity Quotes page.
Apart from this little blog, I was never really a social media fan. I did a bit of Instagram, but watching how it influences my mind, self-image and anxiety, I have decided to step away from it. I am sure there is no need to motivate the move – you know already…
I fear the days are passing too fast. So often I forget myself for hours on end. Where was I yesterday, walking amidst the crowd?
When I come back to myself I am welcomed by a familiar sense of courage – in bright awareness, second by second, anything can be faced.
I hesitate so often, carving just one more figurine before returning home. Rumi wants me to stop this:
Say Yes Quickly (excerpt)
Forget your life. Say God is great. Get up.
You think you know what time it is. It's time to pray.
You've carved so many little figurines, too many...
Tomorrow you'll see what you've broken and torn tonight,
thrashing in the dark.
Inside you there is an artist you don't know about.
He's not interested in how things look different
Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
I have been busy in the studio of late. With the assistance of my beautiful wife I recently migrated from my old drafty and leaky studio to one in my old office. Complete with air conditioning and without leaks! With better lighting and more warmth I now manage to paint into the night…
Another big step I took was to start putting my paintings up for sale online through the Daily Paintworks site. The paintings shown in this blog post all sold recently and it was with happy sadness that I sent them off. They are selling dirt cheap but I am so glad that others can share the joy I get from creating these paintings.
Juggling life between work and painting, stress and friction builds up quite quickly without a discipline of a tempered pace and self-awareness. There is also the potential to lose the golden thread of creativity and spirituality completely. The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki warned against this:
When we are too involved in the idea of time, or taking care of the material world, we will lose our way. A disciple will not be a disciple when he is completely involved in dualistic practice, involved in a busy life in the busy, mundane world.
I find when things hum along, waking up to the fact of my existence as often as I can provides a source of energy, joy even. These are the moments of awareness that constitute a full, appreciated life not spent in forgetfulness.
From an old post of mine: “Lying awake at 2 am, I think again of Pessoa and his wonderful prose. He wrote:”
To shrug off all duties, even those not assigned to us, to repudiate all homes, even those that weren’t ours, to live off vestiges and the ill-defined, in grand purple robes of madness and in imitation laces of dreamed majesties … To be something, anything, that doesn’t feel the weight of the rain outside, nor the anguish of inner emptiness … To wander without thought or soul – sensation without sensation – along mountain roads and through valleys hidden between steep slopes, into the far distance, irrevocably immersed … To be lost in landscapes that are like paintings … A colourful non-being in the distance …
Summer has come to New Zealand! I hope you enjoy this excerpt from a poem by Shinkichi Takahashi:
The Position of the Sparrow (last verse)
Because the whole is part, there's not a whole,
Anywhere, that is not part.
And all those happenings a billion years ago,
Are happening now, all around us: time.
Indeed this morning the sparrow hopped about
In that nebulous whirlpool
A million light years hence.
And since the morning is void,
Anything can be. Since mornings
A billion years from now are nothingness,
We can behold them.
The sparrow stirs,
The universe moves slightly.
Shinkichi Takahashi, translated by Lucien Stryk in
Zen Poetry: Let the Spring Breezes Enter
Thanks to all who have encouraged me with likes and comments. A special thanks to those who follow my blog . I wish you happiness and contentment.
If you are interested to see more of my work, follow me on instagram (@fritzjoosteartist), or to view or buy my work, please visit my gallery on Daily Paintworks.
Coming back to my blog after yet another long absence, the memory of one of Wendell Berry’s poems – A meeting in a Part – pop’s into my mind. In the poem, the narrator tells of a dream: he runs into an old friend, one who has passed already to the other side of life.
The poem concludes with:
Yet I, the changed one,
ask: "How you been?"
He grins and looks at me.
"I been eating peaches
off some mighty fine trees."
The past few weeks I have been in-and-out of a cycle of painting and reading. I am healthy, my family are healthy, my sons proud and showing signs of temperance and self-discipline – the sort that the Bhagavad Gita says leads to the ensuing of “a discipline (yoga) that ‘destroys all sorrow'”.
Life is joyfully sweet with swirls of anxiety and melancholy that blows at times through my days. I keep being amazed by the urge to create, and the fragile line between using my painting to achieve a state of “being nobody, going nowhere”, and working with a strategic, commercial fragrance in my mind – however faint – while I work.
Recently I enjoyed Richard Holloway’s autobiography Leaving Alexandria. For most readers the final chapters dealing with the onset of disillusionment with the church – and perhaps even his faith – are probably the most gripping. But what lingered on in my mind was the impact of his childhood wandering in the hills above the Vale of Leven, north of Glasgow.
Holloway’s reflections on these childhood wandering are especially poignant for a landscape painter:
How can you make yourself one with a landscape? You can tramp over it, become so familiar with its contours that you never need a map, but you can never possess it. It is always eluding your desire, just out of reach, beyond your possessing. I did not know the word at the time, or the idea behind it, but on the hills I was experiencing latency, the sense of something hidden behind what is seen.
I find in my own landscape paintings, when the right chord is struck, I am immediately immersed in a melancholy memory of schoolboy afternoons spent alone in the woods near my home. In a way, each of my landscapes contain something of my childhood.
In the excellent writer’s book Bird by Bird, Annie Lamott advises aspiring writers:
Start with your childhood, I tell them. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can. Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.
I guess in my case the same applies to painting and the source of the visual imagery that lies behind many of my invented landscapes.
The monk Nõin lived in the eleventh century. It is important that he lived. He wrote poems. He wrote:
As I approach
The mountain village
Through the spring twilight
I hear the sunset bell
Ring through drifting petals.
(translation by Kenneth Rexroth, in
One Hundred Poems from the Japanese
Thanks to all who have supported my blog through follows, comments and likes. Without your motivation there would be nothing, I suspect. I hope you are happy and content.
I have been thinking lately about what Rilke meant when he said: “Life is right, in any case”. He was advising the young poet “Mr Kappus” in one of his letters. We do not see the preceding letter from Kappus to Rilke, but we surmise that Kappus must have related some life difficulties to Rilke.
Rilke prepares Kappus for his response by first pointing out that details are not relevant, details come and go:
There is perhaps no use my going into your particular points now; for what I could say about your tendency to doubt or about your inability to bring outer and inner life into unison, or about all the other things that worry you—: it is always what I have already said: …
Then he delivers his advice. And it is fascinating to me that Rilke – a seemingly fragile person with an exquisitely sensitive disposition – points to what seems to me a very stoic attitude:
…it is always what I have already said: always the wish that you may find patience enough in yourself to endure, and simplicity enough to believe; that you may acquire more and more confidence in that which is difficult, and in your solitude among others. And for the rest, let life happen to you. Believe me: life is right, in any case.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet (pp. 41-42). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
That phrase “the patience to endure”, and the urging toward “more and more confidence in that which is difficult” has helped me so much in life. It tends to immediately flip around whatever problem or difficulty I am facing. Then the other side can be seen. And it inevitably contains gold. Hence: fruitful darkness.
Rilke clearly had a stoic disposition despite his sensitivity to things. I think it was Robert Bly who wrote in one of his books: “without cunning and discipline, Rilke would have been wiped out”.
I believe a melancholy, sensitive disposition either wipes you out or it commands you to build a disposition able to work with demons, inner and outer. I recall now reading in Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” (required reading for any adult) how sensitive inmates seemed to better survive concentration camps than more robust types.
Frankl wrote about his Auschwitz experience:
Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature”
Viktor E. Frankl; Man’s Search for Meaning (4th Ed). Beacon Press. Boston.
Wang Wei was another sensitive person who could not be brought down easily – even by the idea that life has no meaning:
The Stone Ledge
On the stone ledge above the water,
Where willow leaf-tips drink the wine.
If you say the spring breeze has no meaning,
Why does it bring me all these falling flowers?
Wang Wei, translated by Kline, A. S., in
Like Water or Clouds: The T'ang Dynasty and the Tao
So…these things have been on my mind, in my morning walks and as I paint away in my studio. I am still working on that phrase: “Life is right, in any case“…
Thanks for stopping by. I hope you are happy and content.
The painting above is charcoal and pastel on paper. I mount the paper over a rough board with some old, dried acrylic paint blotches on it. The rough surface forces me to focus on big areas and not get lost in details – one cannot draw anything small on such a rough surface!
I recently decided to paint on paper rather than board or canvas – mainly because I have so many paintings standing around making me mostly sad. I cannot move around in my studio anymore. Just by coincidence, a fellow painter/blogger commented on my last post that he had started to paint on paper for the same reason.
This got me thinking more about why I put so much time, effort and emotional risk into my painting practice. I can tell you one thing, it is not for the money! (oh God I wish it was!)
I went back in time to my past self, sitting in a small apartment in College Station, Texas in the early 1990’s, getting up at 5 am to practice drawing and make charcoal sketches. Why did I do that?
Moving over my odd 20 years of on-and-off painting, I think in each fresh assault on painting, my motivation evolved in three phases:
Phase 1: I see art that touches me and inspires me. Something in me awakens and says – also want to do that! Motivation: to make something beautiful.
Phase 2: I get feedback from other people (my wife, and these days, blogging or Instagram friends mainly). My motivation morphs – I like having the approval of others, I want more of that.
Phase 3: I strike a plateau. I now turn out paintings steadily, find some pleasing, others not. I still enjoy the praise of others, but part of me starts to wonder: (a) do they really mean it or are we just “liking each other’s stuff”? (b) What do I do with all the paintings?
I think I now go through the above cycle of motivational change in small (monthly) and large (annual) rhythms. Phase 3 is not an easy one. When I am here, I face into the fact that I will most likely never be a famous painter, and – commercial aspects aside – there are simply not enough people who know or are interested in my art to even pay postage to receive it. So what now?
I understand that some may respond to this stage/question in a pragmatic way: “paint better and market yourself and your art better”. But the way I am put together, this state only makes me question deeper.
And the answer I arrive at is always simple, and always the same: I paint because I want to be happy.
Some instinct tells me that painting could be a way to be happy. But one can only be happy in the Now, while painting, not only when and if the result is satisfactory.
And always this points me to the attitude I assume while painting – it is either a gentle, rhythmic, humble form of communion with Something mysterious that is greater than me, or else it is a small, scared pursuit tinged with greed and trepidation.
And to be honest, one the days that I do assume the attitude of communion with something greater than me – working alone and quietly in my studio – I invariably find that there is very little need for strain and control, because the image emerges by itself with only some gentle coaxing from me. And the joy I feel in those moments lasts for hours, makes it all worth while and draws me back again and again. Maybe one day that could be enough for me. I hope.
I am reminded always of the lines from TS Eliot’s Little Gidding when find I drift away from the communal, spiritual attitude into more self-absorbed materialistic one:
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
(text copied from this site)
Thanks for visiting my blog. If you are interested to see more of my paintings, please visit my (slowly) growing website: Fritz Jooste Fine Art.
Two weekends ago I had my first solo exhibition at the David Lloyd Gallery in Hamilton, New Zealand. It was exciting if slightly nerve wracking and very rewarding to see so many of my works hanging together. Below is a collection of images from the exhibition opening:
As luck would have it, one of the most respected teachers in the USA, Martin Campos, was in New Zealand to teach and he also attended. Martin is an Adjunct Professor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. You can find an interview with Martin Campos on Painting Perceptions.
I was quite thrilled to have roughly half of my paintings sold at this exhibition. I have reflected on the experience extensively. As a child, I was taught that “showing off” (i.e. exhibiting yourself!) was a bad thing. Something not done by people of character. So being there as a center of attention drawn to myself took adjustment. I tried to mindfully observe the experience as neutrally as possible.
At a solo exhibition I guess it is common for people to point out what paintings they like. Even though no one said what they don’t like, one senses somehow what is not so popular. This creates in me a huge risk of being diverted from what I believe is my true goal in painting – getting to know myself and my internal world better, and providing an outlet for things in me that I value deepest.
I recall reading about the dangers of having an audience in the book “Art & Fear“:
The risk is fearsome: in making your real work you hand the audience the power to deny the understanding you seek; you hand them the power to say, “you’re not like us; you’re weird; you’re crazy.”…catering to fears of being misunderstood leaves you dependent upon your audience. In the simplest yet most deadly scenario, ideas are diluted to what you imagine your audience can imagine, leading to work that is condescending, arrogant, or both. Worse yet, you discard your own highest vision in the process.
Bayles, David; Orland, Ted. Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (pp. 39-40). Image Continuum
Naturally, this does not have to happen. But one becomes highly aware and sensitive to this danger. After all the excitement abated, I took time to reflect deeply on my art and what I wanted to achieve with it. This period of introspection was perhaps the most rewarding aspect of this exhibition experience. I feel I have since deepened in my mission as an artist and heeded the advice of Bayles and Orland in “Art & Fear“:
The lesson here is simply that courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts — namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work.
Bayles, David; Orland, Ted. Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (p. 48). Image Continuum Press. Kindle Edition.
Amiel said that a landscape is a state of feeling, but the phrase is a flawed gem of a feeble dreamer. As soon as the landscape is a landscape, it ceases to be a state of emotion. To objectify is to create, and no one would say that a finished poem is a state of thinking about writing one.
and something from one of my earlier posts:
Time and time again, a hurried pace, ambition and lack of self awareness takes me to the place of humble-making. There I find myself. Gold is found where I stumble and fall without hope.
I am not that steeply sloping hour that Rilke wrote of:
My life is not this steeply sloping hour
in which you see me hurrying.
I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because Death's note wants to climb over -
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
they stay there trembling.
And the song goes on, beautiful.
Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Robert Bly in
Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke
Thanks for visiting my blog! I hope you are happy and content.
This is one of the larger invented landscapes I have done, about 60 x 45 cm in size. I am trying to incorporate a lighter color key into my paintings and I regard this painting and the others I did this weekend (to be posted soon) as experiments. But then, maybe everything we do in art is experimental?
Below you can see how this painting evolved from a playful sketch in which the composition centered around spirals. The painting on the right is the result after my second painting session. I left it overnight and decided I wanted to darken the foreground.
The final outcome is below. I am quite happy with this result.
I have in the past received comments on my blog – and in in person – remarking on my rather somber palette. Also, often my posts – as the name of my blog suggests – focuses on the..ahem…less happy facets of life – which also seems to elicit concern about my well-being and state of mind!
Like many others, I am rather formal and serious in public. But privately I still feel like a child, joyful and happy for much of the time. However, if I am still a child at heart in my private moments, then it is a child who has seen loved ones disappear and knows that we are on this earth only for a limited time, and that this material realm is not our true home.
So…yes, there is a somber, melancholy element to my art, and this is a direct reflection of the beauty I see in the deeper, more reflective, and subtle aspects of life. A frivolous happiness – in art often represented by what Andrew Wyeth called “the visual cocktail” – is not sustainable all the time (unless you are getting some chemical assistance!).
And so to represent all of life in art, there has to be the shadow side as well. I feel quite comfortable in that shadow side. The “always positive and happy” movement is good – I have benefited from it myself. This is what I believe Thomas Moore referred to as a “Major Tonality” of life.
But the patina of life is more interesting than just that one tonality. Moore writes:
When people approve only of major tonalities, they become simplistic, not only in their thinking but in their very being…It takes a complex view of yourself and your fellow human beings to hold back on hatreds and fears. A mature person is complicated and has complex ideas and values. The minor tonality of a dark night adds a significant and valuable complexity to your personality and way of life.
Wendell Berry seems to know the darkness of life also blooms and sings:
To Know the Dark
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.
The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry
Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you are…HAPPY…and content!
Clear things console me, and sunlit things console me. To see life passing by under a blue sky makes up for a lot. I forget myself indefinitely, forgetting more than I could ever remember. The sufficiency of things fills my weightless, translucent heart, and just to look is a sweet satisfaction. I’ve never been more than a bodiless gaze, whose only soul was a slight breeze that passed by and saw.
More and more these days the familiar face of my expectations and demands move me to take a refuge in meditation, calling out to the spacious infinite arms at the end of thought:
Of Mere Being
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
(this copy from Poetry Foundation)
At times my meditation feels like it is going nowhere. I am awake, open, aware. But no direction or progress seems apparent to the thinking mind. I take comfort in the path that others have walked.
In his book “Novice to Master“, Soko Morinaga writes about his extensive meditation experience in a Zen monastery:
Despite my unrelenting persistence at sitting, every night I would grow hazy and doze off so that my zazen was far from strong and clear.
He continues to describe how he made matters worse by not eating enough as a means to keep him awake while meditating at night. He reached the end of his resources:
Then, one night, all of my ammunition was exhausted. I lost all sense of wanting enlightenment; to continue seeking satori was inconceivable. Gone was the physical and mental energy necessary to maintain a level of consciousness in which one tries to verify with the eyes and hear with the ears…My whole body was a mass of sheer pain…As if consciousness were lost in a fog, all was hazy.
Suddenly, under some impetus unknown to me, the fog lifted and vanished. And it is not that the pain in my own body disappeared, but rather that the body that is supposed to feel the pain disappeared. Everything was utterly clear. Even in the dimly lit darkness, things could be seen in a fine clarity. The faintest sound could be heard distinctly, but the hearing self was not there. this was, I believe, to die while alive….I only know that when I came to myself, I felt tremendously happy!
Morinaga goes on to write:
By meeting what you are faced with right now, though, in this very instant, completely without judgement of evaluation, you can transcend by far all question of cause and effect. You may be working in the kitchen or sweeping in the garden or cleaning the toilet or laboring for somebody else, but you do it without consideration of its relative merit. That means simply doing with all your might, becoming one with whatever situation in which you find yourself in this instant. I would like for you to clearly know that there is this other way of living your life.