Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘art’

North of “Not Many”

In Adventure, Creativity, Nature, Writers on August 2, 2012 at 6:00 am

Art in a land of giants.

The North Woods. We capitalize the words. Sometimes its the Great North Woods. It’s been reported that Maine’s Great North Woods comprises the largest contiguous undeveloped landmass in the lower forty-eight. I don’t know if that is factually correct, but I hold it true because it comforts me, knowing it’s up there, the vastness of it. Approximately four million acres of pine and moose and bear and lakes and ponds, a few modest mountains, and a lace-work of lumber roads.

A person can get seriously lost in such a place, and frequently I go north and attempt to do precisely that. It was during such an effort last week that I stumbled upon the cache of “drawing pencils” in the photograph above. I was north of the little village of Kokadjo. The welcome sign to Kokadjo states the population as “Not Many.” It is good to have a sense of humor in such a place. Passing through Kokadjo, I left the tarmac and rumbled along a lumber road for untold miles, then turned off onto an unused road. It was pitted and grown-over and I followed it until it began to bog out. I noticed a patch of St. John’s Wart and stopped. I let Lucy out, after attaching a bear-bell to her collar, and began to pick the St. John’s Wart. Harvest the flowers, dry them, crumble them, and you’ve got a winter tea to drive away the doldrums.

I stretched my legs, walking down a path, when I found them, the giant pencils, stacked neatly as you see them in the photograph. I looked around. No cabin. No evidence of life. No recent tire tracks, foot prints, nothing. Yet, here was art.

Joyce said that “The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” I thought of this quote and wondered who this God of creation was. I was struck by the obvious purity of the endeavor, as well as the humor. She–for there was something beautifully feminine about this exhibit–she, this goddess of creation, was beyond the work and the work was purer for that. It is possible to create for the purpose of creation only, not needing the prism of “the other.” It was an exhibit of voided ego precisely executed.

I do not know where I was. I did not check coordinates. That seemed contrary to the experience. It was quite simply my reward for giving myself up to the woods.

A manifesto: On creativity.

In Creativity, Photography, The Examined Life, Writing on June 7, 2012 at 6:00 am

Lighting bolt of inspiration? I think not.

I received an email from a talented and aspiring photographer-friend recently. She had a question: “…how do you figure out what ‘projects’ to come up with that are creative, imaginative and [unique]?” Her question is at the heart of the creative effort.

I’m not an expert, nor do I have any profound insight on this. However, I have been practicing forms of the “creative life” for a very long time and have a few observations. Creative expression has, for me, taken many–often frustrating–turns, music, entrepreneurship, photography, art, and most of all–and most steadily–the written word. (That said, I believe one’s life expression–that is, how to live–the ultimate creative project.) In my experience, nurturing inspiration and learning to focus output are key.

There appears to be as many avenues as individuals to this pursuit. Yet, I think there are specific things a person can do to prompt results. I am going to make a list–presumptuous of me, I know. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts:

  1. Nurture a craft. It’s the first step. “Inspiration comes out of the act of making an artifact, a work of craft,” said Anthony Burgess. If you make a photograph, make the best photograph possible–until you make the next one better. Study the photographs that work. Understand why they work. Exercise this knowledge. Of course, “make a photograph” is code for make a sentence, or make a melody, or make a vase…
  2. Refine your craft to the best of your ability. Perhaps your ability will occasionally lift it to the level of art. When this happens pay attention. There are things to learn.
  3. Surround yourself with examples of craft leaning to art. Diane Arbus‘s study walls were covered with photographs she tore from books and magazines. Writers have books, and study them. Learn all you can learn about your discipline and study what has come before you. If possible, sit at the feet of a master, go to a lecture, an exhibit, a masterclass, review a book (a review tests your knowledge of the craft), attend a workshop–do everything time and budget affords in order to learn.
  4. Indulge your sense of confidence. (This is hard and, to my understanding, never accomplished fully.) That is, gain purchase on what you are good at and build on it. The craftsperson and artist will likely never be complete in confidence, but without it, work will always be tentative and boldness wanting. Take pride in your published work, your exhibited work, your favorite creative effort–and understand its success to the degree your confidence allows. Nurture that. Grow bold.
  5. Commit. That is, once you’ve mastered the tools of your craft, once you are confident in your ability to execute consistently, commit to the effort. Do the work–therein lies the pleasure. Tennessee Williams said, “I’m only really alive when I’m working.”
  6. Lastly, work to satisfy yourself first. Let your curiosity guide you. If your effort is true, and your discipline pure, and your craftsmanship masterly, you will satisfy the need to “create.” Everything else follows. The next “project” finds you, not you it.
There is one more thing. Once you’ve pulled all this off, you’re ready to do what Faulkner did. When asked about inspiration he said, “I’ve heard about it, but I never saw it….I listen to voices.”
Listen to voices.

Friday Moleskine notes

In Life, Literature, Truth, Writing on May 11, 2012 at 6:00 am

I will be on the road, or more properly, in the mountains, for another two weeks, but pulled this Friday collection of notes and quotes together before leaving. Thanks for reading.


Freud wrote that anatomy is destiny.

* * *

“Memory, unaided by even a photograph, lays a claim on us that is so much more exacting for being so perishable.” From the New York Times Book Review (10.6.2003)

* * *

Nathanael West, writing on Americans, from The Day of the Locust (1939):

They were savage and bitter, especially the middle-aged and the old, and had been made so by boredom and disappointment. All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theres…. Where else would they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?… They get tired of oranges…. They watch the waves come in at Venice. There wasn’t any ocean where most of them came from, but after you’ve seen one wave, you’ve seen them all…. [Newspapers and movies] fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars…. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates…. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved of nothing.

* * *

Life is the opportunity for art. Be a master wherever you are. Expose the truth wherever you go.

“Inspiration is for amateurs…”

In Creativity, Writers, Writing on April 2, 2012 at 6:20 am

“Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” That’s the artist Chuck Close. I remembered this as I sat down to my computer, lifted my fingers over the keyboard and stared at the screen. After a bit I went over to Facebook, then scanned my RSS reader, came back to the blank screen, stood up, walked around some, looked out the window a while, sat back down and typed the Close quote.

I’m a creature of habit. I get up with the sun, drink my coffee, have breakfast, walk my dog, workout, read, have lunch, then I sit down for an afternoon of writing. I am usually at my desk by one o’clock and leave around four or five. Sometimes I get something of value, sometimes not. Regardless, I work. Mr. Close is a creative genius–and he works. I’m far from a creative genius so I must work that much the harder. After time, I’ve found, the work adds up and pays off. Put in the time and you will be rewarded. Wait for inspiration and you…wait. One hundred-fifty years before Chuck Close, Émile Zola said, “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.”

I am fascinated by lives slouching toward the creative. I want to know who did the work and how it was done. I turn to biography, autobiography and memoir when in this mood.

I’ve pulled a few books off my shelves, books that represent some of the creative lives I most admire. I thought you might enjoy some of the titles. For fun, I’ve included the first sentence to each. Here goes, in no specific order.

One Writer’s Beginnings, by Eudora Welty. “In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.”

Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov. “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

Genius, The Life and Science of Richard Feyman, by James Gleick. “Nothing is certain.”

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein. “I was born in San Francisco, California.” (Not an autobiography, nor a biography. That’s Gertrude Stein for you. Yet a wonderful look at the creative life.)

James Joyce, by Richard Ellmann, “Stephen Dedalus said the family was a net which he would fly past, but James Joyce chose rather to entangle himself and his works in it. (This is the definitive biography–and perhaps the best example–next to Boswell, of course–of the art of the genre.)

Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, by Ray Monk. “The figure of Ludwig Wittgenstein exerts a very special fascination that is not wholly explained by the enormous influence he has had on the development of philosophy this century.”

A Movable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway. “When we came back to Paris it was clear and cold and lovely.” (A memoir by which to measure all memoir. This is my favorite Hemingway.)

Diane Arbus, by Patricia Bosworth. “As a teenager Diane Arbus used to stand on the window ledge of her parents’ apartment at the San Remo, eleven stores above Central Park West.” (This biography depicts the most unsettling and frenetic portrait of creative genius I can recall reading.)

Off to the Side, by Jim Harrison. “Norma Olivia Walgren met Winfield Sprague Harrion in 1933 at the River Gardens, a dance hall just north of Big Rapids, Michigan, on the banks of the Muskeon River.” (Harrison, my favorite living American writer.)

Self-Consciousness, memoirs by John Updike. “Had not my twenty-five-year-old daughter undertipped the airline porter in Boston, our luggage might have shown up on the carrousel in Allentown that April afternoon in 1980, and I would not have spent an evening walking the sidewalks of Shillington, Pennsylavnia, searching for the meaning of my existence as once I had scanned those same sidewalks for pennies.” (That’s such a lovely first sentence, maybe a perfect sentence.)

Bruce Chatwin, a biography by Nicholas Shakespeare. “On February 1984, an Englishman with a rucksack and walking-boots strides into a bungalow in the Irene district of Pretoria.” (Chatwin casts a huge influence over me. I’ll write about him at a later date.)

Friedrich Nietzsche, a Philosophical Biography by Julian Young. “Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration, he believed, was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s feet, shout ‘Da capo!’–Once more! Once more! Back to the beginning!’–to ‘the whole play and performance’.”

I’m not sure this constitutes “work” as Mr. Close meant it. But it must suffice for now.

No, You’ll Never Do “That.”

In Photography, The infinity of ideas on October 8, 2010 at 1:55 pm

At one time I owned and curated a gallery of fine art photography. (Never mind that I have a problem with the words “fine-art”

An Alison Wright Portrait

An Alison Wright Portrait

as an adjective to anything. It was pure marketing.) Among the photographers I represented in my gallery was National Geographic photographer, Alison Wright, a photographer who had spent her career photographing indigenous people of endangered cultures.

One afternoon a large woman wearing a hat came into the gallery. She had her young son in tow. He was maybe fifteen. They looked at the photographs, brilliant portraits of people living on the Tibetan plateau, of people in the jungles of Burma, remote China and elsewhere in Asia. “Look at these, Jimmy,” said the large woman in the hat. “You could do that. You could do that with the camera you got for Christmas.” Jimmy looked at the images, peered into the eyes of the subjects and said nothing. I do not know if Jimmy believed he could “do that” or if Jimmy even knew what “that” was. I wanted to slap my palm on the surface of my desk. I wanted to shout, “No. No way in hell will you do that, Jimmy. You know how I know, Jimmy? I know you will not invest twenty years of your life getting to know a place, getting to know a people. You will not sleep on the stained floor of a clinic, or sweat your balls off in a steamy jungle, or leave the comfort of your family, or house, your country for God knows how long. And you know what, Jimmy. Even if you were to do all those things, you would not do “this.” You would do something altogether different. “This” can only be done once. Whatever you do, it will not be this.” I wanted the large woman in the hat to stop filling poor Jimmy with delusion. What he was peering at was not common. It was not as simple as “doing that.”

I fear we have lost the capacity to recognize the authentic. That seems the ominous leveling nature of modern society. Hence, I rail!