Sunday, October 18, 2009
The Best You Can
The Tahitians don't have a word that means "art." The closest expression in their language translates to something like "doing the best you can." Ever since I heard this it has become a kind of mantra to me.
I try and apply it to my own work, to my students and anyone who shares his or her work with me. If we live with the idea of perfection, we will never do anything. The notion paralyzes us, but doing the best we can, this is possible. I recall a friend many years ago who said he wanted to write like William Faulkner. I told him I just wanted to write a good scene or so every day. My friend ceased writing long ago, but it appears that I am still plodding along.
Toward the end of his life Romare Beardon, the Harlem collagist and painter, said that he didn't know how he'd done so much work over his lifetime, but he just did a little every day. Perfection has too much ego attached to it. A Cuban friend once told me that if your ego gets in the way of your art, "you are damned for all eternity." This seems a bit extreme, but I understand his point. If we do our art because we care about what others are going to think of us, if it is a way to achieving self-esteem (or money, fame, etc.), it will never work out. But if we do our best because we really enjoy doing it, then what is to stop us? Doing our best is really about trying very hard.
To paraphrase Ted Kennedy in his posthumous memoir, if you really like something and you keep doing it, you will eventually succeed. I like to write. I truly enjoy it. It helps me take the muddle inside my head and make something coherent out of it. (Another quote I've lived by - Alberto Moravio. "Life is chaos. Only literature makes sense.") It has taken me years to realize that this is perhaps the only real reason to want to write.
A while ago, perhaps ten years, I began coloring in my journals. I started doing it because I had had many fiascos with cameras and I wanted to record what I saw without a fear that it would somehow self-destruct. So I began to paint. Nothing fancy. Just playing really. I had no idea what I was doing, but I didn't care. I'd taught myself to write (no MFA), so why not paint? Channeling Henry Miller seemed like the way to go. Since threatened with damnation by my Cuban friend, I've felt it was good to have something you like to do in which you have zero ego investment.
Cooking, gardening, ice skating (until I broke my ankle) for me were a few. I'm sure other people have their own. The painting became that kind of a thing. It was also a place where I started to feel very free and I found it also freed up my writing. I began just scribbling in my journals on lined, not very resilient paper. After a while I got better paper and switched to an unlined journal, which I use now. I thought I could never write on an unlined journal, but I am doing it more and more.
The journals I use now I got in Florence and the paper is very good. When I run out, I'm not sure what I'll do. At any rate for now, for the next year anyway, which is about how long it takes me to complete one, I'll have this one and I'm sure something else will present itself before long. Last year I went to Mexico and took a drawing class with Sue Siskin, a fine watercolorist and artist who lives in LaManzanilla. You can see her work on line.
Sue taught me to do contour drawing. "Be a bug," is what Sue said. Pretend you are crawling around the edges of whatever it is you are seeing and don't look down at the paper. So I drew this image, the one above, from Sue's terrace. It is the view from her house. Then I colored it. And I liked it. It was, shall I say, the best I could do.
I am reminded of that moment in "The Rose Tattoo" when a woman shows Marlon Brando a bad landscape painting she has done. He looks at it and, in his Marlon Brando way, says nothing. But the woman replies, "I know they aren't very good. But I feel better when I do them." It was a very simple thing to say, really, but I can't think of a better reason to make art.