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How an Artist is Like a Tree: Paul Klee on Creativity

“Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root. Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection.”

How an Artist is Like a Tree: Paul Klee on Creativity

Since we first came down from the trees, we have been looking at them and seeing ourselves, seeing lush metaphors for our own deepest existential concerns — metaphors for the secret to lasting love, metaphors for what it means to live with authenticity, metaphors for finding infinity in our solitude.

Trees have been of especial enchantment and self-clarification to artists. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter. “As a man is, so he sees.” Two centuries later, the visionary Agnes Martin first dreamt up the spare visual poetics of her grids while “thinking of the innocence of trees.”

But no one has intersected the canon of sylvan metaphors with the canon of theories of creativity more insightfully than the Swiss-born German artist Paul Klee (December 18, 1879–June 29, 1940) did in a 1924 lecture about the creative process, later adapted into the now-iconic essay “On Modern Art,” posthumously published in 1948 as a slim, lovely book with a foreword by the great English philosopher, anarchist, poet, and art historian Herbert Read — a man who so ardently believed that “art must lead beyond the arts, to an awareness and a share of mutuality” — and included in the 1964 anthology Modern Artists on Art (public library).

Little Painting of Fir-Trees by Paul Klee, 1922. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

Considering “those elements in the creative process which, during the growth of a work of art, take place in the subconscious,” Klee likens the artist to a tree and writes:

The artist has studied this world of variety and has, we may suppose, unobtrusively found his way in it. His sense of direction has brought order into the passing stream of image and experience. This sense of direction in nature and life, this branching and spreading array, I shall compare with the root of the tree.

From the root the sap flows to the artist, flows through him, flows to his eye.

Thus he stands as the trunk of the tree.

Battered and stirred by the strength of the flow, he guides the vision on into his work.

As, in full view of the world, the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and space, so with his work.

Tree Nursery by Paul Klee, 1929. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

But the work of art, Klee cautions, is not a direct translation of the subconscious — it is rather the work of a transmutation for which the artist is both the agent and the vessel:

Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root. Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection. It is obvious that different functions expanding in different elements must produce divergences.

But it is just the artist who at times is denied those departures from nature which his art demands. He has even been charged with incompetence and deliberate distortion.

And yet, standing at his appointed place, the trunk of the tree, he does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths. He neither serves nor rules — he transmits. His position is humble. And the beauty at the crown is not his own. He is merely a channel.

Complement with Pablo Neruda’s love letter to forests and Walt Whitman on the wisdom of trees, then revisit other immensely insightful reflections on the creative process and what it means to be an artist by Virginia Woolf, Beethoven, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mark Rothko, Robert Browning, Wassily Kandinsky, W.S. Merwin, Chinua Achebe, E.E. Cummings, and James Baldwin.

BP

“I Go Down to the Shore”: Natascha McElhone Reads Mary Oliver’s Spare, Splendid Antidote to Melancholy and Personal Misery

Consolation for the waves of sorry from the waves of the sea.

“I Go Down to the Shore”: Natascha McElhone Reads Mary Oliver’s Spare, Splendid Antidote to Melancholy and Personal Misery

“Let us… seek peace… near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies,” Mary Shelley wrote two hundred years ago as she envisioned a world ravaged by a deadly pandemic and weighed what makes life worth living. “The setting sun will always set me to rights,” the melancholy John Keats wrote in the same era, a century and a half before Lorraine Hansberry considered the mightiest remedy for depression and observed that “hills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries.”

To divert the beam of your attention to nature, to take in the staggering scale of spacetime under the starlit sky or the miniature cosmos of aliveness on the scale of moss or the blooming of a single potted flower, is to step beyond the smallness of your own experience, beyond its all-consuming sorrows and its all-important fixations, and into a calibrated perspective that arrives like a colossal exhale from the lung of life.

“Skybreath” by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

That is what Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) offers in her spare, splendid poem “I Go Down to the Shore,” found in her 2012 collection A Thousand Mornings (public library) and brought to life by actor extraordinaire, my dear friend, and voice of Figuring Natascha McElhone at the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day — a hallmark awakening of our ecological conscience, inspired by Rachel Carson’s work — as Earth was being stilled and disdayed by a deadly pandemic that suddenly made the interconnectedness of life and lives viscerally real. Against this backdrop, Oliver’s poem sings quiet, powerful consolation for the fear- and sorrow-contracted pinhole of our perspective.

I GO DOWN TO THE SHORE
by Mary Oliver

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Complement with Mary Oliver’s equally, differently perspectival poem “When I Am Among the Trees” and Natascha’s enchanting narration of Hermann Hesse’s 100-year-old love letter to trees, then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: Patti Smith reading Emily Dickinson’s ode to how the world holds together, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, a breathtaking animation of Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,” and astronomer-poet Rebecca Elson’s staggering “Antidotes to Fear of Death.”

BP

D.H. Lawrence on Trees, Solitude, and How We Root Ourselves When Relationships Collapse

“One must possess oneself, and be alone in possession of oneself.”

D.H. Lawrence on Trees, Solitude, and How We Root Ourselves When Relationships Collapse

To walk among trees is to be reminded that although relationships weave the fabric of life, one can only be in relationship — in a forest or a family or a friendship — when firmly planted in the sovereignty of one’s own being, when resolutely reaching for one’s own light.

A century ago, Hermann Hesse contemplated how trees model for us this foundation of integrity in his staggeringly beautiful love letter to trees — how they stand lonesome-looking even in a forest, yet “not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche.” Celebrating them as “the most penetrating preachers,” he reverenced the silent fortitude with which “they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.”

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

A supreme challenge of human life is reconciling the longing to fulfill ourselves in union, in partnership, in love, with the urgency of fulfilling ourselves according to our own solitary and sovereign laws. Writing at the same time as Hesse, living in exile in the mountains, having barely survived an attack of the deadly Spanish Flu that claimed tens of millions of lives, the polymathic creative force D.H. Lawrence (September 11, 1885–March 2, 1930) took up the question of this divergent longing with great subtlety and splendor of insight in his autobiographically tinted novel Aaron’s Rod (free ebook | public library), rooting the plot’s climactic relationship resolution in a stunning passage about trees.

D.H. Lawrence

At a tea-party, the novel’s protagonist meets the Marchesa del Torre — an American woman from the South, married to an Italian man and living with him in Tuscany; a woman of composure with an edge of beckoning aloofness, “sitting there, full-bosomed, rather sad, remote-seeming,” a kind of modern Cleopatra brooding from under her dark, heavy-hanging hair out of an Aubrey Beardsley drawing. She strikes him as “wonderful, and sinister,” affects him “with a touch of horror.” He falls under her spell, drawn to her as we are so often drawn to danger by the magnetic pull of the sublime, with its dipoles of beauty and terror.

One of Aubrey Beardsley’s revolutionary illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome. (Available as a print.)

When their affair collapses under the weight of its own impossibility, he finds himself — and finds his self, his sovereignty of soul — among the trees. Lawrence writes:

One must possess oneself, and be alone in possession of oneself.

[…]

He sat for long hours among the cypress trees of Tuscany. And never had any trees seemed so like ghosts, like soft, strange, pregnant presences. He lay and watched tall cypresses breathing and communicating, faintly moving and as it were walking in the small wind. And his soul seemed to leave him and to go far away, far back, perhaps, to where life was all different and time passed otherwise than time passes now. As in clairvoyance he perceived it: that our life is only a fragment of the shell of life. That there has been and will be life, human life such as we do not begin to conceive. Much that is life has passed away from men, leaving us all mere bits. In the dark, mindful silence and inflection of the cypress trees, lost races, lost language, lost human ways of feeling and of knowing. Men have known as we can no more know, have felt as we can no more feel. Great life-realities gone into the darkness. But the cypresses commemorate.

Complement with Robert Macfarlane on how trees illuminate the secret to healthy love, Pablo Neruda’s breathtaking love letter to the forest, and Mary Oliver’s short, shimmering poem “When I Am Among the Trees,” then revisit Lawrence on the antidote to the malady of materialism.

BP

Anne Lamott’s Wondrous Letter to Children About Books as Antidotes to Isolation, Portals to Perspective, and Crucibles of Self-Discovery

“Books and stories are medicine, plaster casts for broken lives and hearts, slings for weakened spirits.”

Anne Lamott’s Wondrous Letter to Children About Books as Antidotes to Isolation, Portals to Perspective, and Crucibles of Self-Discovery

Books awaken us into living from the slumber of near-life. Books are lifelines of survival in inhumane times, building blocks of conscientious citizenship, reliquaries of the human spirit. What we read shapes not only what we become, but how we become.

That is what the wise and wonderful Anne Lamott explores in her lovely contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a labor of love eight years in the making, collecting 121 original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us from some of the most inspiring humans in our world: artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Andrea Dezsö for Anne Lamott’s letter from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Lamott writes:

Hi You,

I really want you to hear what I am going to say, because I think it is the truth. Okay? I’ll make it fast.

If you love to read, or learn to love reading, you will have an amazing life. Period. Life will always have hardships, pressure, and incredibly annoying people, but books will make it all worthwhile. In books, you will find your North Star, and you will find you, which is why you are here.

Books are paper ships, to all the worlds, to ancient Egypt, outer space, eternity, into the childhood of your favorite musician, and — the most precious stunning journey of all — into your own heart, your own family, your own history and future and body.

Out of these flat almost two-dimensional boxes of paper will spring mountains, lions, concerts, galaxies, heroes. You will meet people who have been all but destroyed, who have risen up and will bring you with them. Books and stories are medicine, plaster casts for broken lives and hearts, slings for weakened spirits. And in reading, you will laugh harder than you ever imagined laughing, and this will be magic, heaven, and salvation. I promise.

Okay? Deal?

Love you,

Anne Lamott

Complement with other wondrous letters from A Velocity of Being by Rebecca Solnit, Jane Goodall, Alain de Botton, Debbie Millman, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alexander Chee, Kevin Kelly, and 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin, then revisit Lamott on the relationship between brokenness and joy, finding meaning in a mad world, how perfectionism kills creativity, and her magnificent manifesto for calibrating existential priorities.

BP

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