Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

01 MAY, 2014

Carson McCullers’s Little-Known 1964 Illustrated Children’s Book

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Refreshingly direct verses with a strong existential bend and an undercurrent of science and astronomy.

As a lover of little-known children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups — including these gems by Mark Twain, Aldous Huxley, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and J.R.R. Tolkien — I was thrilled to discover that in 1964, Carson McCullers penned Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig (public library), a charming collection of short verses for young readers illustrated by the acclaimed German set designer and painter Rolf Gérard.

Written three years before her death, by which point McCullers had suffered multiple strokes and had lived with the entire left side of her body paralyzed for more than 15 years, the refreshingly direct poems straddle a peculiar balance between innocent optimism and wistful contemplation.

Many of the poems not only have an existential bend, concerned with such contemporary questions of science and philosophy as the nature of nothingness and why the world exists, but they also exude a palpable enchantment with science, astronomy, and cosmology — no doubt due to being written during the golden age of space exploration.

HOW HIGH IS THE SKY

The sky is higher than a tree I know.
I know it’s higher than an airplane
But when at night there is a starry sky —
I wonder which is higher
Stars or sky?

I SOMETIMES WONDER

I do not wonder where everything is.
Everywhere is shops and children, trees and air,
Our gate, our garden, these are everywhere.
But Mama darling, Papa dear, I sometimes wonder
Where is nowhere?

THE UNSEEN

I’ve seen a mountain,
I’ve seen the shore,
I’ve seen so many, many things more;
I’ve seen fireflies who light up in the dark,
I’ve even seen Yellowstone Park.
But the thing that I, and anybody else has
Never seen, I swear,
Neither I nor anybody else has ever seen air.

ASTRONAUT

I’m not afraid of space ships or orbital flights
Where the lights are blue and purple and
There is a zooming sound.
I lie in my space suit important and brave
While zip zing the world goes round.

Today at recess Buddy dared me to fly
To the moon, dared and double dared.
While I was thinking he called me chicken.
I was only thinking that if Daddy went first
I would not be so scared.

I am afraid of the black-patched pirate.
I am afraid of Captain Hook
And of dares and double dares,
While I was only thinking that if Daddy went first
I would not be so scared.

Others pull into question the seeming absurdities of adult conventions:

A RAT AND A RAINBOW

This afternoon the sun shone while it showered.
This afternoon there was a rainbow —
Bands of orange, gold and red, like many-colored flowers
Bent in a big bow across the sky.
Children ran across wet grass, pointing at the
Rainbow shouting, “Look, oh my!”
Why is it rude to point at people,
But not to point at a rat or a rainbow?

Others still are bittersweet, even decidedly wistful, exploring such darker subjects as loneliness, hopelessness, and the interplay between badness and sadness:

GIRAFFE

At the zoo I saw: A long-necked, velvety Giraffe
Whose small head, high above the strawy, zoo-y smells
Seemed to be dreaming
Was she dreaming of African jungles and African plains
That she would never see again?

SPORT WILLIAMS

I knew Sport Williams in second grade
He was a bad boy.
He was a repeater.
Failed in his number work,
Scribbled in his reader.
He threw spitballs.
He stole money,
And always lied and said
He had not done it.

When Betty had a sore toe
And had to go to school
With a cut-out bedroom slipper
Sport jumped into the air
And stayed there
Until he landed on Betty’s sore toe
In the cut-out bedroom slipper
On Purpose!

Oh! Sport was a bad boy.
No one loved him but his mother.
And when he was suspended, she said, “He was not
A bad boy,
But a sad boy…” because
No one loved him but her, his mother.

PANDORA’S BOX

There was a little girl called Pandora
Who opened a magic box.
The magic box was a tragic box,
So look what happened to poor Pandora.

SWEET AS A PICKLE AND CLEAN AS A PIG

When you’re sweet as a pickle
And clean as a pig —
I’ll give you a nickel
And dance you a jig.

Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig, should you be so lucky to track down a surviving copy, is an absolute treasure. Complement it with Sylvia Plath’s little-known children’s verses, Gertrude Stein’s posthumous alphabet book, and Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls.

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01 MAY, 2014

Letters to a Young Artist: Anna Deavere Smith on Confidence and What Self-Esteem Really Means

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“Real self-esteem is an integration of an inner value with things in the world around you.”

“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Joan Didion wrote in her timeless meditation on self-respect. But how can character be cultivated in such a way as to foster that prized form of personal dignity, along with its sibling qualities of confidence and self-esteem?

That’s what celebrated artist, actor, playwright, and educator Anna Deavere Smith explores in a section of the altogether fantastic Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts for Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind (public library) — a compendium of counsel addressed to an imaginary young artist, titled after the famous Rilke tome, in which Smith addresses with equal parts pragmatic idealism and opinionated optimism those of us seeking change and championing social change, as well as those who see themselves as “one of the guardians of the human spirit.” She introduces the premise, adding to history’s most beautiful definitions of art:

Art should take what is complex and render it simply. It takes a lot of skill, human understanding, stamina, courage, energy, and heart to do that. It takes, most of all, what a great scholar of artists and educators, Maxine Greene, calls “wide-awakeness” to do that. I am interested in the artist who is awake, or who wants desperately to wake up.

[…]

I am trying to make a call, with this book, to you young brave hearts who would like to find new collaborations with scholars, with businesspeople, with human rights workers, with scientists, and more, to make art that seeks to study and inform the human condition: art that is meaningful.

For artists and creative spirits alike, Smith argues, the issue of confidence is as important as it is messy — and it’s also often a placeholder term for something far more crucial in the dogged pursuit of mastery that defines any successful creative endeavor. She writes:

Confidence is a static state. Determination is active. Determination allows for doubt and for humility — both of which are critical in the world today. There is so much that we don’t know, and so much that we know we don’t know. To be overly confident or without doubt seems silly to me.

Determination, on the other hand, is a commitment to win, a commitment to fight the good fight.

Equally important, and arguably even trickier to navigate, is the question of self-esteem — that elusive quality so vital to our spiritual flourishing yet, due to our human fallibility, so fragile amidst the world’s constant and mostly unsolicited feedback and input. Smith reminds us that, not unlike the false validation of prestige, to peg our measure of self-worth on external validation is to commit ourselves to a never-ending cycle of disappointment — a seemingly simple observation that feels increasingly hard to internalize in our culture of “likes” and everyone’s-a-critic commentary. Smith puts it elegantly:

In the arts, value … is like a yo-yo. You can’t base your self-esteem on how well your work is selling or on how well it’s received.

Instead, she considers the essence of what self-esteem actually means and why it matters:

Self-esteem is that which gives us a feeling of well-being, a feeling that everything’s going to be all right — that we can determine our own course and that we can travel that course. It’s not that we travel the course alone, but we need the feeling of agency — that if everything were to fall apart, we could find a way to put things back together again.

More than a form of self-soothing, however, self-esteem is also a powerful conduit for effecting change in the world:

Some people seem to be able to organize themselves around big ideas, and others cannot. This has to do with self-esteem. Self-esteem for creative people is important inasmuch as it is a part of what helps you organize yourself and others around an idea, so that it can come to fruition. Ideas are a dime a dozen; to make them real takes consistent, persistent application of energy toward that idea. Self-esteem is a foundation.

While acknowledging, as modern psychology does, that the foundations of self-esteem itself are laid down during childhood, through our upbringing and our early experiences, Smith admonishes against relinquishing personal responsibility in the architecture of character and self-esteem, and reminds us that we are the sole custodians of our own center and worth:

Self-esteem cannot really be built from the outside. You begin to see the real evidence that you can, in fact, affect the things around you. These experiences ultimately integrate themselves inside — if that foundation is there. Self-esteem does not come from surrounding yourself with people and things that seem to increase your value. Real self-esteem is an integration of an inner value with things in the world around you.

It’s about your worth. Your self-worth… You — and only you — can ultimately put the price tag on that. Your tag reveals not only how you value yourself, but how imaginative and original you are about valuing others. In my experience, happier people are people who have not only a high price tag on themselves, but a high price tag on the people around them — and the tags don’t necessarily have to do with market value. They have to do with all the sense that adds up to human value.

Letters to a Young Artist is magnificent in its entirety, a precious invitation to communion with one of the most expansive and original creative spirits of our time. Complement it with Susan Sontag’s illustrated insights on art, John Steinbeck on the creative spirit and the meaning of life, and Robert Henri on how the spirit of art binds us together.

Thanks, Wendy

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30 APRIL, 2014

Perseverance, Self-Transcendence, and the “Slow Churn” of Creativity: A Conversation with Artist Rachel Sussman

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How deep time puts our fleeting human lives in perspective, what it takes to persist, and why any meaningful creative endeavor requires sacrifice.

At a recent event at the School of Visual Arts Theater in New York, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brooklyn-based artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman about The Oldest Living Things in the World (public library) — her decade-long labor-of-love photographic masterpiece at the intersection of fine art, science, and philosophy highlighting thirty humbling organisms over 2,000 years of age, which I’ve covered at length previously. In our conversation, we explore how deep time helps make sense of our fleeting human lives, what the role of the “slow churn” of ideation is in the creative process, and why any meaningful creative endeavor requires an act of self-transcendence.

Transcribed highlights below, and be sure to see Sussman’s superb photographs, contextualized by her thoughtful essays.

On the project as a cultural reality check and a personal reminder of our place in the universe:

MP: NPR recently shared a survey that found 40% of the American public doesn’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old. We know, of course, that scientifically speaking, Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. And yet what’s most striking is that we — all of us, globally, still use Christianity as the basis for measuring and dating time. The year 2014, for instance, is based on the story of Christ, year one being his birth in that story. But when one beholds, say, a 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree, it’s impossible — impossible — to continue believing such mythology. When you were starting this project, did you have any sense that besides a masterwork of art, it would also be a tremendously important and powerful piece of science communication and a cultural reality-check? And how do you see the project’s role in that regard, now that the book is complete?

RS: One of the things I was aiming to do was to anthropomorphize these organisms as a way to connect and start to forge a personal connection, which really is a philosophical one, when you start to look at, for instance, the 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree, and what does that mean. For me, this is something that has taken years to sink in — you get it, on an intellectual level, but by returning to this topic again and again … and making more connections to these organisms and understanding how they are all interconnected, that starts to create a bigger picture that’s both about deeper and broader time that belongs to all of us, but also that our individual moments matter quite a bit and are part of that chronology.

Bristlecone pine

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

On finding a sense of purpose, the doggedness necessary for creating meaningful work, and the importance of defining our success in terms more authentic than outside approval:

MP: I want to talk a little bit about this notion of faith — ungrounded, unevidenced faith that carried you through.

A young woman recently reached out to me and asked for some advice, and complained that she had just started working for a major publication six weeks prior. She complained that she was really frustrated that she couldn’t build an audience in those six weeks, and she was ready to throw in the towel.

You’ve been doing this for a decade — you’ve been doing it completely guided by your own inner compass, inner radar, and not having any sort of solid positive reinforcement from the outside. What carried you through it, what gave you that center that told you this was something that had a sense of purpose on the scale of your life and defined success in terms other than immediate rewards?

RS: [Laughing] I certainly wasn’t in it for the immediate rewards.

I couldn’t not do it — that is the simplest answer. I felt so compelled by that idea, and it felt important to me that I see it through.

That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t terrifying along the way… It was quite a long battle just getting to the point where I felt this is something that really is worth my time and attention, and then I had the idea and I thought, “How am I ever going to do this idea justice?” And I grappled with that for a while. And over the years it just changed and transformed, and I grew more confident the more I looked at it. But it took that time. When I started … I didn’t know what I was doing, and these things revealed themselves to me by having that continued attention to it.

It’s hard to say what the magic ingredient is, other than perseverance. And, certainly, you can’t throw in the towel after six weeks.

Llareta

3,000 years | Atacama Desert, Chile

MP: Since you started the project, you’ve been working with the Climate Reality Project as an official presenter doing public outreach. So I wonder how the ecological component of the work accelerated in urgency for you, personally, doing this?

RS: I’ve always considered myself an environmentalist, for whatever that term means, and it’s something that I think, as an artist, was an interesting thing — because for a long time, I don’t think it was particularly acceptable in the fine art world to be doing work about nature. It’s something that was sort of in a compartment somewhere off to the side…

The problem of climate change is so pressing and actually is something of a moral imperative for us all, and I think artists do a tremendous job of engaging the public on different levels [compared to hearing] some numbers about the C02 levels — it’s hard to internalize that. And I think that’s one of the beauties of being able, as a creative person, to create the parameters of what you want to talk about. The science and the climate science are a very important component of the overall project. That message certainly underpins the whole thing and has been with me and with it from the beginning.

The question has been this idea of making portraits of these organisms and thinking of them as individuals. I think one of the most important things to do when dealing with climate science and climate change is to create a personal connection, and to create some relationship. That was my way of trying to forge a relationship to these organisms.

Antarctic moss

5,500 years | Elephant Island, South Georgia

On how the project began when Sussman first photographed an ancient tree in Japan, the myth of the Eureka! moment, and how the slow accumulation of combinatorial creativity sparked this decade-long journey:

I didn’t know I was doing the project yet — I didn’t have the idea, and I didn’t have an epiphany standing in front of [that first tree] … It was actually sitting at a Thai restaurant in Soho over a year later that I got the idea — so you never know when inspiration [will strike].

But this is actually something that I think is so vital to the creative process… I didn’t know at the time, but I find it incredibly comforting now — it’s something that Steven Johnson writes about in Where Good Ideas Come From, this idea of the “the slow churn” … just following these different paths, the things that intrigue you, and allowing them to simmer in there until something fires in your brain and all of a sudden these connections happen.

I did have the a-ha! moment — but it probably was a year and a half in the making.

Dead Huon pine

10,500 years | Mount Read, Tasmania; Royal Tasmanian Botanical Garden, Hobart

On self-doubt, creative resilience and making the choice to pursue this project:

I knew I was going to make sacrifices — I don’t think I knew I was going to make as many sacrifices as I did. But that’s okay. There are moments where I felt doubt, because I think every creative person does — and if they don’t, there’s probably an issue [laughing] — but there was never a moment that I wanted to give up.

On the disconnect between exposure and financial success, an important reminder in a culture where artists are constantly asked to do work for free and be “paid” in exposure:

Just because your name is in the paper, it doesn’t mean you have money to pay your rent.

On realizing, while working as a digital producer, that paying work and fulfilling work are not always the same thing:

I had a moment while I was sitting working for some website for some brand, and I thought, “This doesn’t matter. This isn’t how I want to spend my days, this is not the way that I want to put something out into the world that is of significance.”

Brain coral

2,000 years | Speyside, Tobago

On the notion of the “audience”:

MP: Oscar Wilde famously said that to the artist, the public is “nonexistent” and Hemingway believed that writing is a solitary act which necessitates no witnessing audience until the very end. And for you, certainly, this was a very solitary project… But you wrote in Nature, in a beautiful essay:

“There are a lot of happy accidents. Both art and science can be filled with passion and frustration, setbacks and breakthroughs. But, most importantly, the work is never meant to exist in a vacuum … it is the audience that completes the picture.”

So I wonder how your sense of “the audience” evolved over the course of the project.

RS: When I first started the project, even though I knew it was meant to exist on these different levels and have different aspects, I didn’t really know how I was going to communicate that. So I think that it was just important that I be able to create a connection with these different aspects, but that it would be different for different people. So, if you’re a scientist, you may go straight for the science, and if you’re a visual artist, you might just look at the pictures. But the idea was that I wanted to intermingle all of these things, and let people bring what they will to it. So there’s not a right and a wrong way — it’s not prescriptive in that way…

It’s completed by the person taking it in, and that’s something that I realized over time as well — that I want to have all of those layers there, and I see them as a whole, but I also have an understanding that … there’s just as much value if you get one thing out of it and not the other. My hope is that it sparks some thought or conversation in the audience, and it’s not just meant to be a document filed away — it’s actually meant to engage, and I hope that it will serve as something that is a call to action, whatever that might mean for people.

Welwitschia Mirabilis

2,000 years| Namib-Naukluft Desert, Namibia

And engage it does — The Oldest Living Things in the World is a masterwork of pause-giving perspective, both cultural and personal. Sample its dimensional genius here.

All photographs © Rachel Sussman published exclusively with the artist’s permission

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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