Today, January 17, 2015, I am sitting in our gallery, looking at the beautiful and challenging work placed here by the artists of the Washington Street Artists’ Cooperative. Part of that beauty and challenge is the result of technical growth made by the individual artists over 2014. I see works from people who have overcome life’s challenges and launched out into new ventures. I see the results of steady endeavor manifesting itself in our showplace. I see the works of new artists – to us – who grace our collection with their hard-earned advance in artistry. I have said before that serving as president of this cooperative is like riding on the crest of a wave. I heard Eric Clapton say once that, when he went to a Stevie Ray Vaughan concert, the volume was so great that he finally had to give in, let it tear him down, and go the heights the music would take him. This is the effect of our collected works on me and anyone who stands in their midst. This volume has also extended beyond our four walls in 2014. We have established a presence in Discover Downtown Charles Town and the National Endowment for the Arts Grant Steering Committee. Our city has even allowed us to display a piece of our art in the City Hall. We were featured in local and regional media toward the end of the year. All this is combined with continuing work by our members in the Jefferson Arts Council, Artomatic, the Old Opera House, Berkeley Arts Council, Berkeley Art Works and on and on. I am not going to try to single out artists in this litany because, in fact, ours has been a collective effort and journey. Suffice it to say that when one belongs to the Washington Street Artists’ Cooperative, he or she is in league with a group of creative and contributing community members. Throughout the coming year my task will be fundamentally to enable the continued rise of our profile in our community and region. I do not look to keep up with or engineer the growth of our combined work. I look to be born forward in my progress as an individual artist in and as a functionary of the Washington Street Artists’ Cooperative.
How do we improve? Many years ago I was at a 7th & 8th grade basketball game, which was actually pretty good. The home team was ahead, and the coach for the opposing team had called a timeout. My friend said to me, “You watch; he’ll waste half the time out telling them what they did wrong instead of getting them ready for the rest of the game.” The coach did just that, and we won. This story means something to me today, because it is a parable that shows how best to improve and grow as an artist. Some think we should put ourselves down – point out our own mistakes to ourselves – in order to keep a growing edge. The idea here, apparently is to keep ourselves from getting a big head and literally spur ourselves on to do better. Others say they’re being realistic. My experience tells me that neither knocking ourselves down, nor being (so-called) realistic is a winning formula. People who take these stances negate the first building block of improvement: the belief that one has the talent, commitment and vision to get better. Without that, the inner respect for and strength within oneself for growth is sapped. Besides that, it is not realistic unless you think that only the negative side of life is real. This is true whether one is talking about an individual artist, our Co-op, our town, or, indeed, our nation. Let’s try to see better, not just bad.
Our community has said in many ways, “We shall have and support art.” Thus, it has opened its doors to the riches of the arts. While I’m in no one’s estimation – my own least of all – a great artist or an artist of long-standing, I’ve been at this furniture making and wood working for long enough to experience some growth. When I first started, I thought of my calling as one of manipulation – performing the various tasks by the movements of my hands. Therefore, I spent time studying how to do that and how to combine it with the work of my eyes. I studied how others moved their hands, I tried things, and learned where to put my vision (with every operation I try to find one thing to watch for accuracy).
As time has gone by, I’ve learned that there’s a whole other side to craftsmanship and artistry: listening with my heart. I have said, for instance, that a design/build process requires listening to the ‘yeses’ and ‘no’s’. In my experience, it’s a little more than that. For example, the other day I was listening to my granddaughter cry, but I was unconcerned, because it was a ‘mad’ cry as opposed to a ‘hurt’ cry. The truth and beauty toward which I strive has to be drawn out. What I have to be able to discern is the difference between a ‘mad’ and a ‘hurt’ no; the no’s that respectively say, “this will be hard,” or “this can’t be done.” I might, for instance, get a hurt no and have to make a jig (a shop-made tool that perhaps holds the material in a certain way in order to perform a cut) so that I can achieve the effect I want. My decision about the kind of no I’m hearing is a practical one and draws upon all the work I’ve done before.
Every one of the artists in our co-op would describe his or her process in different words and from a different standpoint. When a community says, “We shall have and support the arts,” it is opening the door for a kaleidoscope of artistic experience that draws the heart of specific people into the spotlight. This is the place where the riches the arts have to offer are found.
I belonged to a book group once where the husband of one of the members questioned what good it was to sit around reading. After all, he reasoned, it didn’t bring in any money, and it cost some. The book club member described this situation and his question to our group and, sad to say, everyone looked at the floor. When I saw this, I said I thought I had an answer for him. It’s the answer that first attracted me to artistic endeavors and has time and again proven their worth: The arts – whether they be written, painted, hand-crafted, or whatever – provide us with freeing alternatives.
We live in a world where people want to tell us how it is, or get our vote, or get our money for their version of life. They are eager to supply us with a vision of our very selves, and then sell us a way to get “there” or become “that.” It is hard to find a perspective; a place where our own spirit can speak. By providing an alternative view, art breaks the stranglehold of possessions and power. In its best moments, art opens a door where we can see ourselves more deeply and differently.
I knew a woman in the 1980s who ran a women’s assistance program. She and I didn’t have a lot in common, but we attended the same meetings and that is how I got to know her. She saw the world differently and I saw that she had a special gift for pointing out the value in difficult situations, that everyone else missed.
Art brings us to that place in our own worlds. That’s the value of art that first spoke, and still speaks, to me.
“Truth and beauty, beauty and truth…” This is an exciting time to be an artist or associated with the arts in Charles Town. If you’ve been reading the paper, you can see that there are some sea changes occurring in the relationship of the art community to the rest of our town. This is a chance for inner and outer growth. Indeed, one feeds the other. Outer growth – change in our setting and the amount of resources dedicated to establishing the arts – can provide an opportunity for inner growth – broadening and deepening of vision and the resultant challenging to our artistic vocabulary and skills. I am by no one’s imagination a great artist. In association with the artists of our co-op I find myself in so many ways a neophyte. Still, I know what has gotten me this far. I have seized upon truth and beauty and beauty and truth and continue to do so every day. This is what keeps me going. It allows me to add my small contributions to the art of our area and our time. Without truth and beauty and beauty and truth as the center point of our vision and guide to our growth, all that is being done now will eventually come to nothing. I have had the opportunity recently to sit around the table with people who are excited about the possibilities in our area. For many it seems as though they are coming out of a long night. This hope, this willingness to contribute cannot be betrayed. Seize truth and beauty, beauty and truth!
This has been a growing season for me. My wife Sharon and I have put in a garden space that about equals our gallery floor space. I have recently come into possession – or am about to do so – of some beautiful spruce, maple, walnut and hickory, which I have been able to help get milled. Our gallery has done well with sales, and it’s just the third week of the month! We just had a beautiful show in the Fire Hall Gallery by Virginia Winston. I am moving toward creating my work – it is all designed – for a wood show that will open in August. Our city is putting some shape on its plans for the future. My grandson has returned from a Mission trip and looks forward to a horseback riding camp and a flight to Colorado for five weeks followed by a week’s camping trip back across the nation, stopping especially in Tennessee. On top of all this at every turn I bump into members of our co-op who share thoughts, concerns and victories that bless me. The real problem I have is trying to manage myself in this time so that I can continue to operate. I am experiencing feelings of exhilaration and exhaustion – similar feelings to those I knew in college and at other exciting and growing times of my life. Our co-op has had played a large part of bringing this most recent sense into my life, and I am thankful for it.
What a strange thing creativity is. When someone participates in it, he or she steps outside the envelope. This assures the creator that she or he will work in solitude, apart from others. How will this work be received; will it sell; will it be ridiculed? Thus, along with the energy and spirit which must accompany a creative act, there is apprehension.
I found the secret to overcoming the tides of apprehension in my own creativity in a life experience of another person. Her name was Hilda. When I met her I was just beginning middle age, and she was twenty or thirty years older than me. She had grown up in a rural area near a small town that had a railroad depot. As a late teen, she got a job working in the train depot at night. One of her duties was to make sure the mail got on the train. This was a big challenge for her every night, because the train did not stop, and there was no mail hook on the platform. Therefore, she had to stand on tiptoe at the very edge of the platform with the bag held high in her fingertips. The train would whiz by at sixty miles per hour and suddenly a hook would grab the bag out of her hands. She only failed once to screw her courage up to stand close enough to the edge of the platform and make the hand-off. The train had to back two miles down the track in the dark, and she got blessed out by the conductor. I asked her what kept her from falling into the train when she stretched up with the bag. She said she always looked at the bag, never the train.
That has provided the key for me to keep my creativity alive. I’ve looked at my creation and let someone else worry about how it would be received. This is not to say that reception is unimportant. After all, it’s the other half of the creative process. Also, I cannot say I’ve created something unless I’ve gotten it into a position – or condition – to be received. Still, my attention must be focused on my creation. Our gallery is full of the works of creative artists in some sense balancing on the edge. This is where we bear fruit. It is where we celebrate and carry on our creativity.
The other day I passed a new house site. All that lay on the lot were the roof trusses. I
remembered the excitement I once felt when I saw a pile of trusses, although in the contracting firm I once ran with a partner, we never built a house-we specialized in garages and additions. The excitement I felt was a function first of the fun I had in building things, and second of the wonder I felt at building living and storage space. We never knew what turns lives would take within the spaces we built. We knew we were just the beginning of something within people’s lives and that the spaces would be taken in directions we couldn’t imagine, filled with art, furniture, memories, decision-making, hellos and goodbyes. Sometimes when I’m in the gallery I feel the same way. Who knows in what way the art on display there will touch lives. Maybe a child will be inspired to make beautiful things. Maybe someone will find harmony and peace for difficult times. Maybe someone will be nurtured with the sheer beauty of the object. Our gallery is full of beginnings, and I celebrate that.
Anyone who is acquainted with Sharon and me knows that we are mystery fans. I’m not
sure that over the years we haven’t become aficionados. We have found and followed
mystery writers (we usually forget their names, but remember their detectives) from
all over the world. One who caught our eye many years ago is Georges Simenon,
a Belgian writer. His fictional detective character, Jules Maigret, points up an often
missed side to our efforts as artists today. I have often talked about the need to grow
as an artist and to support our artists’ community. Indeed, as I have immersed myself
in the community around the Washington Street Artists’ Cooperative, I have to say that
a great willingness has shown itself to provide support. Also, within the cooperative
I have seen artists struggle to grow, testing the boundaries of their medium and their
skills at employing it.
What I haven’t addressed much are the central issues which unite us as artists.
Simenon styles his detective, Maigret, as a ‘healer of destinies’. His detective sees
the brokenness around him and addresses it as a healer. Simenon here seems to be witnessing to the fact that people make decisions which result in a world broken in some way (social, emotional, political, etc.). Once these decisions are made and acted upon, they take on a life of their own, generating brokenness apart from the people who initiated them.
Very few of us would say things are not broken. In fact, much of what I see in the art around me seems to be an attempt to point out the brokenness or its healing. For example, beauty is displayed to show its opposite. Design is deployed to achieve a wonder from hearts devoid of it. Artists use this contrast to bring us back to ourselves and our environment and to remind us who we can be as humanity.
Pablo Picasso painted a famous mural on canvas entitled, Guernica in 1937 in response to the bombing of the Spanish town of that same name by the German Luftwaffe in support for Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Picasso was later asked by a German officer if he had done that (meaning the painting), to which he replied, “No, you did.”
I’ve been thinking about chairs today. They’re interesting to build what with all the angles and all. More than that, chairs tell you things about art. When he first adopted Eric, my grandson, my son bought him a faux recliner and set it next to his in the living room. They were going to watch T.V. together. Eric found the chair and sat in it – so far, so good. Then he went up, turned it around and sat in it again. He had repurposed the chair. Our art begins with a line, color, space or mass and goes who knows where. I used to think if I was disciplined enough, I could determine all the possibilities before I began. The creative process, however, will repurpose that line.
Another chair I have met is the one Henry David Thoreau brought with him to Walden Pond. He was getting away from everything, seeking an alternative to society around him. The chair screamed that he could rework – repurpose – but that he couldn’t go to nothing and start again. Our work as artists builds on those who have come before – in our art and individual lives. None of us is simply a starting point. In our lesser moments we point to something else; in our greater we participate in it.
Finally, there are chairs each made to the dimensions and form of the individual buyer, that have been designed by a maker in California. The problem here, as I’m sure you can see, is that the buyer will change form or pass the chair along. What then? Our art is bigger than any of us. I make furniture that will never grace my house, and for people who see something in it I never saw. It leaves my hands and goes out. As much as I’d like to be the measure of my work, I’m not. We may be sitting the wrong way (according to others), pointing to a dream (no matter how impractical), and standing powerless specifically to aim our work, but in the end that is our gift, and we must continue to give.
I am 66 years old. People glibly say things like, “That’s the new 50”, but like the Velveteen Rabbit, the years have worn off patches. As I say to people who ooh and ah over a newborn whenever one is at our church, I was cute like that once. But with lines in my face, inches to my waist, and the disappearance of my lips (where did they go, anyway?) I have grown older.
I am one year – soon to be two – older than what I was told would be my retirement age. As a person who has worked successfully and unsuccessfully for myself over the years, I have found out two things: there is no automatic retirement age and there’s no automatic desire for retirement to happen. By the latter, I mean that a person does not abandon the habit of a lifetime, nor does he or she ignore the life force offered by environment and society.
My involvement with the artists of the Washington Street Artists’ Cooperative has opened a door for my creativity through learning about the various media in which they work. These media include: photography, painting, pottery, woodworking and and wood carving, glass, mixed media, and writing. This variety has sparked an interest in me to learn more about my own medium and push the limits of my work.
Every encounter with our membership and the people who visit our gallery creates another spark to my artistic fire. Beyond all, I have learned through these associations that the only thing worse than simply getting older would be getting older without getting better.
I have been thinking about the passing of Nelson Mandela. It has caused me to remember the mountains. When you get to the top of one, the others stretch out before you. During my lifetime I have witnessed the passing of many people who have helped me to the top of mountains: Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert Frost, Lucille Ball, Mary Travis, Agatha Christie, Sam Maloof, Wharton Esherick, George Nakashima, and more. They challenged me to go further, try harder; they moved me to laughter and peace, helping me to lay down the burdens which weren’t mine to carry. They showed me what I could become and cleared away the tears that came when I tried and failed, or failed to try. Most of all though, I remember Traveler.
Traveler was a dog I met who taught me a great lesson. He was a working cow dog on a Simmental ranch in Arkansas. One day I was with his owner, and we were riding in a truck across a pasture and along a barbed wire fence line looking for a Confederate grave yard. Traveler was running along beside the truck. He ran ahead of us and, planting his feet on a fence post, began to bark. I asked his owner what he was doing, and he said, “He’s just lying. He wants me to think he’s got a squirrel treed so I’ll stop and let him rest.” I looked at that, though, and saw another meaning. That dog was actually afraid love would pass him by. He did not realize that the bond of love in his and his master’s hearts would keep them together and that all he had to do was to keep his eye on the bumper of that old truck.
What keeps me from climbing the mountains before me is the fence posts I bark up. I want to prove I’ve done something, or show some flattering character trait or whatever, when what I need to do is keep my feet on the ground and look to join with love.
Many times we say something is a mystery to us when what we mean is that we don’t have an explanation for it. Someday, we may find the reason of this thing, but right now, no. If we look at this category, there are many mysteries in life and some of them are mysterious for only some of us. There is, however, a quadrant of life which is truly mysterious. There are fewer mysteries here, but they are absolute. There can be no explanation for them. Into this category fall humanity and all the characteristics which are most central to us: our heart, mind, soul, spirit, and strength. What these essentially are and where they originate are mysteries. The closer and more familiar we are with any of them, or the central human activities that derive from them, the less we understand and know about them.
Art and creativity are good examples of mystery in this sense. Paolo Uccelo painted The Hunt at Night, or just The Hunt, in 1470. It is a depiction of a particular activity which takes on a deeper meaning when we apply it to human life. Its background is black with riders, dogs, and trees painted in the foreground. In the middle of the painting the hunters and dogs are seen disappearing toward a vanishing point in the forest. In his day the hunt was a metaphor for human love. As you stare at this painting you begin to see what a mystery this depicts. There are no answers or guarantees – only the hunt. Will we engage or not? This is the domain within which art and creativity operate. Stop and give yourself an opportunity to look at a picture, pot or any other artistic object. In there is another person reaching out to you, trying to connect – not just with your money, but with you.
There is no limit to the abundance and effect of beauty and truth. I once heard a financial advisor say that stocks are the only thing of which she was aware that people sold low and bought high. She said this to illustrate the point that in trading stocks, as in the rest of our everyday lives, it’s the long term goals and strategies we adopt and adhere to that count. I think the point I walked away with was there is no limit to the abundance of beauty and truth. I can spend my life focusing upon and looking for the short fall, or I can focus on the abundance of beauty and truth.
I am an artisan. This is a combination of craft person and businessperson. As I have entered into this life, I have focused at first on the skills necessary to master my craft. It is with these primarily that I find and mine beauty and truth. This takes time and patience, and it is of a piece in a way. No matter how simple or seemingly elementary the task, doing it properly takes practice and skill. This skill must go in two directions: you not only must know what you want to do – cut, bore, turn – but you must know why you want to do it – how does this action fit into the other actions you must perform to execute a specific design.
The business side builds out of this constellation of whats and whys organically. I had a friend who was attending a respected music school, and he had a talent identified as better than good by the best in his field. Instead of nurturing this talent, however, he chose a way that made him some quick money for awhile. Today, he’s a software engineer without a job or a retirement. This experience taught me that I want to be serious about finding my mastery in my craft and allow the business side to develop in coordination with that. As the business side grows within this perspective, it feeds the craft side, revealing new challenges. Becoming an artist or an artisan is saying I believe in the abundance of truth and beauty.
Art is a blessing in a stick of dynamite. Like all explosive elements it is continually subjected to attempts at controlling and defining it. These endeavors find their justification in what is often seen as the result of art on our social fabric. It can be corrosive to traditional values and upsetting to the sensibilities. A brief reading of social history will garner numerous claims that the novel and theater, paintings and sculpture were corrupting influences. Apparently, when Igor Stravinski’s modernistic symphony, The Rites of Spring, was first performed in Paris in the early 20th Century, it caused a riot. The problem with this particular approach to art for me is that it tends to see the light of the explosion, but not its force. Rather than understanding the power of art, it just tries to contain it. It’s like trying to protect yourself from an atom bomb with a screen door or a cardboard box. Art’s power is in its ability to enter into and to affect our spirits. Saying this, though, doesn’t really communicate much. ‘Spirit’ is a word that has multifarious – and therefore often no – meaning. In this context I’m using it to describe that aspect of ourselves that designates the overall direction in which we are pointed. Something that touches that aspect of our lives can be very creative and disruptive. In other words, because art can change the ends in our lives – the things we are trying ultimately to achieve – it can change all the means. Thus, it can cause us to change careers or radically to examine our families and our relationships in and to them. Art’s blessing is that through form, color, texture, sound and movement it can and does transform our lives, and thus helps us to come closer to the mystery of ourselves.
I’ve had the marvelous opportunity to do some hiking in the Rocky Mountains this summer. While the trails I’ve walked have been a bit testing for me, a portly eastern West Virginia flatlander, they are all already forged and well kept up. While hiking on one the other day, I saw what I thought was the largest deer track I’d ever encountered. I was told it was the footprint of an elk. What intrigued me was that it lay perpendicular to the direction of the trail. It was an up-close reminder of all the ‘wild’ around us. Here was evidence of something that, albeit briefly, occupied the same space as I did and which, apart from breathing the same air and obeying the law of gravity, was not inhibited by the rules of movement I had to follow to survive. It helped me remember that we exist in a world with aesthetic forces running all around us, forces that do not conform to the ways we usually live our lives. They expand our horizons and the artisans who access these forces help us to see a larger world. At their best these artisans not only provide a sign, a pointer to the larger world, but they also give us a symbol, a path into that larger reality where, who knows, we too might find the track of something wild.
Many times I have asked the other artists of our co-op where they get their aesthetic; what powers their vision; what are they trying to say. I have received many answers to these queries – as many answers as people I have asked. Listening to the answers, I hear one thing again and again: each one is struggling to produce something that is coming from deep inside. For some, this is a process of getting to the truth about themselves. For others, the medium or the environment is more important. Most find it difficult to capture in words what their art is about. This and the intimate nature of their work adds vulnerability to the person in the process.
All in one way or another are seeking comfort in the old sense. The word, comfort, comes from two words, ‘con’ and ‘forte’, which when put together mean ‘with strength’. To comfort someone in this sense is to bring them strength. Thus, to comfort someone has nothing necessarily to do with ease or pleasantness, or even overt acceptance.
I make furniture. With every piece I experience a series of “yes’s” and “no’s”. It begins with my medium, wood, or my design. They say, ‘Yes, you can do that with me,’ or ‘No, I cannot go there.’ As the piece emerges, it continues down this yes and no path. Sometimes the no’s outweigh the yes’s, and I have to abandon the project and start again. Other times, everything works out. My point is that the yes’s and the no’s bring strength. They help me find the truth. The no’s are a test of vision. Will I find the yes in here?
Comfort is the strength needed to mine the truth. That’s why we formed this co-op; why we help each other show and sell our work; why we share our yes’s and no’s. The central purpose is to bring comfort, because the great tragedy for any artist is to lose the strength to produce work. Ultimately, the work is the artist’s contribution; his or her part in the kaleidoscope of life.
Being President of the Washington Street Artists’ Cooperative is like riding the crest of a wave. I can feel the forces having their effect on myself and my environment, but I do not understand all of them. Each of the people featured in our gallery has their own aesthetic and technical goals, and I am uplifted and expanded within myself as I view them. Each one surprises me and speaks to me of the narrowness of my vision and artistic sensibilities.
Sometimes I see something evocative of feelings deep inside, at other times I am struck by the sheer grandeur of a piece. This is what art does, and it’s been doing it for a long time. Monet, for instance, expanded our mind’s eye. Rather than paint a tree, he would abandon the concept ‘tree’ and allow this entity to shine through in a set of lights, colors and shades and reveal a nature and another being we had never seen. We were just looking for what we expected, and he revolutionized our seeing. Mondrian did the same thing with structures as did Royko with emotions.
Sitting quietly in the Charles Town Visitors’ Bureau is an opportunity for you to grow. This opportunity is presented to you through the auspices of our city and county, and by the hard work of individuals all of whom have been convinced of the value of art. Their efforts have been rewarded by the energetic, transforming vision presented by our artists. Come ride the wave.
When you enter our gallery, you find yourself surrounded by a host of images. Each one is a frozen particle of vision and a kind of lightning from the soul of the artist who formed it flashing into your line of sight. Thus, these images float around you like a school of bright fish, reaching out to you. They each have something for you, but what? Why read a poem, or allow yourself to fall into a painting or a photograph. Why look at the wood of a fine, handcrafted box or table? Why allow the various sculptures and pots into your view of the world? The answer to this is as old as human thought. In fact, in ancient Greece a man named Xenos employed images to spark philosophical thought about people and the world. He was the founder of Stoic philosophy, and he displayed images between pillars on an open air porch (a stoa in his language). These images were meant to help people view their environment (physical and social) through different lenses and thus help them to see the familiar world from new vantage points.
You and I have images thrown at us all the time from people and institutions who want our money, political power, love and/or support. They try to convince us to consume or participate in order to stay young, be safe, popular, handsome, pretty or whatever. Art in all its forms is an attempt to provide a counterweight, a presence at the other end of the seesaw helping us to find balance. It challenges the prevailing viewpoints, helps us to remember values we have forgotten or maybe lost, shows us new paths for endeavor and aids us in mining the courage to take them. Do not allow art to be shut out of your life. It offers a road to finding and maintaining yourself in this tumultuous world.