Inside the Vision of an Artist

“Seeing is a very sensuous act-there’s a sweet deliciousness in seeing yourself feel something”- James Turrell

I remember the first time I saw a work by the artist James Turrell. It was Spring break of my senior year in college. Home in Soho, I was flitting around the neighborhood on a bright sunny morning when I found myself in front of The Barbara Gladstone Gallery. With time aplenty (ah to be young again), I opened the door, gave a shy nod to the gallerina behind the desk, and entered the beckoning tunnel of darkness.

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It was hard to say where the tunnel ended and the room began. All I knew was that a lilac apparition appeared before my eyes. The first tingle ran down my spine as this lilac rectangle of light seemed to reach out towards me and then recede into the distance all at once. I slowly stepped towards what I thought might be a glowing canvas. With every step I expected my eyes to clarify the numinous situation, but with every step understanding slipped farther and farther away. What the hell was I looking at? Was it material? Was it far from me? A few steps ahead? Did it lead somewhere? Am I dreaming? Nervous giggles started bubbling out of me as I nudged forward in a state of delighted awe and disbelief.

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Not knowing can be a ticklish feeling. It is a sensation that I personally adore, but I know that many find it uncomfortable. As humans, we are wired to make sense of things- to process clues and arrive at an understanding. We crave comprehension, reward logic and believe measurement. This is how we anchor and orient ourselves in the world.

Art, however, invites us to hang out in the unknown. It allows for a different, more spiritual sort of mooring. The poet Wallace Steven’s words express this beautifully:

“Most people read poetry looking for echoes because the echoes are familiar to them. They wade through it the way a boy wades through water, feeling with his toes for the bottom: the echoes are the bottom.”

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What is so genius about Turrell’s work is that it subverts our primary sense making system- our eyes- into functioning as a receiver for the liminal and mysterious. One cannot look at a Turrell work, one must be in a Turrell work,  and being inside of the work means we are inside a state of wonder.

“The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible”- Oscar Wilde

Orchestrating these experiences require a technical wizardry that Turrell has been honing for years. He began his exploration in the sixties as part of the Light and Space movement in Southern California, which included other artists such as Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler and Mary Corse. In his artistic practice he continued to research vision, the retinal structure and to experiment with perceptual and psychological phenomenons. While his work has been exhibited and lauded worldwide, Turrell’s most important work is out of the fray, in the middle of Northern Arizona’s Painted Desert.  Roden Crater is a volcanic cinder cone which provides a “controlled environment for the contemplation of light.”  The vision, ambition and sacrifice that this project embodies is unparalleled, and speaks volumes about Turrell’s depth as an artist who looks for light.

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This exercise is about visual attunement, the goal here is to heighten your consciousness around color and light.

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THE COLOR OF YOUR DAY, A EXERCISE IN PERCEPTION

    1. Pick a color
    2. Keep a look out for this color throughout your day
    3. Make a mental note everytime you notice that color
    4. Be aware the variations you find- for example: dark red, light red, orangy-red etc
    5. Be aware of how the color appears at different times of the day or in different contexts
    6. Take a picture or two that includes your chosen color and post it #TCHcolor or send it to thecreativehours@gmail.com

Further reading and supplies:
James Turrell; A Retrospective Published in conjunction with a major retrospective, this comprehensive volume illuminates the origins and motivations of James Turrell’s incredibly diverse and exciting body of work—from his Mendota studio days to his monumental work-in-progress Roden Crater.

 

 


James Turrell; Geometry of Light The first significant Turrell survey in many years, an extraordinary body of work covering several decades is assessed. At the book’s center is the series of works known as Sky Spaces, a signature Turrell conception in which the sky is made to seem “on top of” the room’s ceiling, and which has become a mini-genre unto itself within light art.

Getting Dirty with Eartha Kitt

My brother Zac and I once made a killer dress for Eartha Kitt. It was blood red stretch velvet. When we fit the dress, Eartha knew precisely what she wanted: lower the neckline half an inch, tighten the ruching at the hip and extend the leg slit to the top of her thigh. At the age of eighty, Eartha Kitt still had legs to die for and was a fierce (and flirtatious) commander.

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Fathom her life. She was most likely conceived by rape and grew up betwixt abusive households and on the streets. Despite her harsh and disjointed upbringing, she managed to pursue dance lessons, which eventually landed her a job with the Katherine Dunham Company. Traveling with this African American dance troupe opened doors and changed the course of her life. Early in her career Eartha branched into singing cabaret on the European circuit. In Paris she was discovered by Orson Welles. He declared her “the most interesting woman in the world”, and promptly cast her as “Helen of Troy” in his stage production of Dr. Faustus. Opportunities continued to unroll before her like a leopard spotted carpet.

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The once unlucky misfit from South Carolina turned into an award winning singer, dancer, actress, cat-woman, movie star, activist and highly educated polyglot with an insanely foxy persona. Orson Welles saw the future.

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Eartha Kitt did not shy away from her history or inner forces. Despite coming of age in an era of sexism, bigotry and repression, Eartha harnessed her sexual drive and converted her scarred youth into powerful and expressive charisma. The Eartha Kitt persona was in heat and on edge. She was not afraid of being mean, messy or dangerous. In 1954 she released an album she titled “That Bad Eartha”, which launched many of her now classic songs, including “C’est si Moi” and “Uska Dara” and “I Want to be Evil”.

“The more I surrendered to myself, to the self that would not be limited and narrowly defined, the more glorious a time I had with me and with life”

Here is a video of her digging into her fabulously evil side:

Her honesty extended beyond her stage persona, and she spoke her mind without regard for consequence. Eartha Kitt’s career came to a temporary halt when, at a formal luncheon, she confronted the First Lady about the idiocy of the Vietnam War. The story goes that her candor made Lady Bird Johnson cry- and in spite of the repercussions she faced, Eartha remained gracefully unapologetic.

Eartha Kitt was aggressively prolific during her eighty-one years on this planet. She attributed her success to her fierce survival instinct. Her daughter tells of her death, and how after a fight with colon cancer, at eighty-one, she literally left the world screaming at the top of her lungs.

“My recipe for life is not being afraid of myself, afraid of what I think or of my opinions. I’m a dirt person. I trust the dirt. I don’t trust diamonds and gold.”

There is a profound lesson on creativity here. The lesson is: find your inner beast. Excavate your truth. Find within yourself the good the bad and the ugly- and use it to fuel your creativity. Pain, desire, fear, anger, hurt, love, jealousy, sexuality, rage- all these feelings inside you are raring to be expressed. Surrender to them and let them motor you to create something great.


Further Listening and Reading:

Eartha Kitt: Femme Fatale, a newly released graphic novel by Marc Shapiro. Tells the story of Eartha Kitt’s life.

 

 

Confessions of a Sex Kitten, by Eartha Kitt.  This memoir tells the dramatic life story of the entertainer-activist who captured Broadway in her debut in New Faces of 1952.

 

 

America’s Mistress: The Life and Times of Eartha Kitt, by John L. Williams.  An fascinating biography that captures the ahead-of-her-times woman behind the myth and also takes a look at race relations in Twentieth-century America.

 

 

That Bad Eartha, Eartha Kitt

Georgia O’Keeffe, her barrel of bones, and finding your thing

Art fairs are now everywhere, all the time.  The pressure is always on, and I think I should move my studio to Siberia or the desert.

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Georgia O’Keeffe found her escape from the noise when, in her forties, she discovered the Great Southwest. Already a successful painter who was recognized for her closely framed flowers, O’Keeffe sought new subject matter and distance from a complex romance with photographer Alfred Steiglitz. In 1929 she found in New Mexico what she described as:

such a beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place, such a fine part of what I call the ‘Faraway’

She would spend the next decade traveling back and forth from New Mexico to New York and Lake George. Eventually she made a permanent relocation to Abiquiú, where she would live and paint until her death at 98.

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For me, the magic of O’Keeffe lies in opposites. Joan Didion described her as “simply hard”, and copious photo documentation concurs- she is American’s Marlboro Woman. Her radiant paintings, however, with their wavering forms evoke the very softest of experiences. Georgia O’Keeffe was a paradox: blunt and the same time swept away by mystery; solo and yet entwined with lovers. When speaking of her art she managed to be mystical and contrarian all at once and when making art she found the infinity by zeroing in.

Georgia’s mind reveals to us that the ineffable and the concrete are not in conflict. In her own beautiful words

“abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can clarify in paint.”

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New Mexico was her place. The land felt right, the light felt right, and the beauty resonated with her deeply. She tooled around in a Model A Ford, which also doubled as a painting studio, and took frequent rambling walks.  O’Keeffe began collecting skulls, bones and pieces of the desert that she could take with her. By the end of her first few summers there, she had filled the Ghost Ranch windowsills with feathers and finds. She had also amassed a barrel of bones, which became the source materials for her series of iconic bone paintings.

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It seems that  world has always pined to see her work through Freudian and symbolic lenses: wanting to understand her flowers as sexual, and her skulls as morbid and so on. Georgia rejected all that.  In this inspiring video Georgia O’Keeffe sets the record straight about the story of the bones:

“People think they are about death.  They are not about death.  They are simply shapes that please me.”


This creative exercise, inspired by Georgia’s barrel of bones, is about careful observation of shape and form.  It is also about discovering inspiration and paying homage to what simply pleases you.

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FIND YOUR THINGS: A COLLECTION OF SHAPES

  1. Select a home for your collection- window sill, dresser top, shelf etc.
  2. Think about a type of objects pleases or interests you- bottles, feathers, wires etc.
  3. Keep a look-out for these things – in your house, on the street, in the woods
  4.  Build a collection over time
  5. Admire your objects. Look closely, relish the peculiarities, enjoy the whole
  6. Take a picture of your collection and share it #TCHCollection or email to thecreativehours@gmail.com

 

Further reading:

Georgia by Dawn Tripp, A recently released work of historic fiction that paints a picture of Georgia O’Keeffe’s early life, her romantic involvement with Alfred Stieglitz and her journey against odds to establish herself as an independent and successful artist.

 

 

Georgia O’Keeffe and the Camera: The Art of Identity, produced by the Portland Museum of Art, this book brings together a lifetime of portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe from artists and photographers including: Warhol, Stieglitz and Webb.

 

 

Portrait of an Artist: Georgia O’Keeffe by Laurie Lisle,
Georgia O’Keeffe, an excellent biography of one of the most original painters America has ever produced, who left behind a remarkable legacy when she died at the age of ninety-eight. Her vivid visual vocabulary had a stunning, profound, and lasting influence on American art.