Art is a funny thing. It is a term that can encompass so many things, yet we often use it to refer to works created via drawing, painting, sculpture, or some other kind of media involving images.
I have not visited the elementary school that I attended as a child in many years. Yet I am fairly certain that in the halls of Mountview Road Elementary School in Morris Plains, there still hangs a rather faded work of art with my former name on it, and the year, "1981". As I recall, it is a framed image with orange matte (looks more like construction paper) that surrounds images of colorful squares, which are not quite as colorful after 30 years. They weren't even as colorful after 15 years.
The picture was originally hung in the school corridor because it was an art award that I had received. Yes, an award. For ART. The story behind the image is not so exciting. When I was in the 4th grade, our teacher, Mrs. Blauvelt, used to read to us after lunch, mostly (then) new works by Judy Blume or Beverly Cleary. While she read, even if I was interested in the story, I would become restless. I noticed that some of the boys in the class would take out a piece of paper and some markers, fill the paper with squares, then color them in. So, I did the same thing. Our art teacher, Mrs. Petronzi, had an extra credit box in her classroom. I would put my name on these and dump them into her extra credit box. Then, at an assembly one day at the end of the school year, I was presented with an art "award" that consisted of her framing 4 of these non-exciting creations into a picture. No one was more surprised than me that I would get any kind of award for this level of sloth.
As I was driving this evening, it occurred to me that this is my immortal legacy to Mountview Road Elementary--a framed picture of crappy squares drawn by someone with what you might call a "manual fixation". My friend has two children with a similar fixation. When we sit around her kitchen table talking, they are compulsively tearing something to bits or taking it apart. We must have sublimated the whole "idle hands are the Devil's workshop" thing. I just don't know that we're usually rewarded for it.
This evening, I drove back to the neighborhood near where I work, to a library where I used to work. I was there to hear my friend Marjorie Keyishian read her poetry, along with another accomplished poet whom I'd never heard/met, Heather Dubrow. Before the reading, I stood out in the hallway with Geraldine, who works at the same university that I do, in continuing education. She pointed out that one of the artworks was from one of our students, and it was beautiful. "It's certainly not anything I could create," I said.
"Now don't you say that. With the right art class, you could do things like that too", she replied.
She may be right. I don't know. Art is something that does have a basic language and technique to it. But I still think the truly talented can transcend that technique naturally, though I suppose like anything else, you may have to know the rules before you can break them. I was an English major in college, but I never took a class on writing. Yet I know how to write. My obnoxiously large vocabulary can probably be attributed to 7 years of Latin classes. Still, the "necessity" of such things I question, though I would imagine classes are necessary if you don't have a natural talent and want to learn. I recall John Leigh Karborn telling me that he had actually taken some art classes and found them thoroughly depressing and confining, so he dropped them. Yet, he does pretty amazing artwork. There are no hard and fast rules for getting it right, it seems.
Creativity is an impulse that springs from the collective unconscious. We use our standards and techniques to modify our creations, though sometimes this isn't necessary. At the poetry reading, someone asked Marge and Heather if they ever had a poem come out right "on the first try". They both said "yes", and Marge added, "about once every 15 years".
I don't know if I can write poetry. I have written poems, but I am unable to judge them. I have taken classes on poetry, and I understand everything about meter, rhyme scheme, form, etc. But I still don't know if I write decent poetry or not. Perhaps I need a writing group for that, or maybe I'm just not confident in my work. In any event, my poetry will likely be confined to my bbfiction blog, or to my notebooks, unless I have a compelling reason to do otherwise.
Heather Dubrow's poetry can be light and humorous, and can also cut like a knife. One of her poems, "motherlove", is about a girl whose father dies, and whose mother seems to have a string of new boyfriends ("uncles"), and not much regard for her. The girl marries a dentist, has a family, eventually gets old and dies. The poem ends with the lines, "We laid her in the cavity they had dug for her / with the headstone she requested, 'beloved wife and mother' / paid for by the children who / could not read what it unsaid." Ouch! But absolutely perfect. Of the strange flower zwartkop aenonium she writes, "No one can believe this flower was ever a virgin."
I have Marjorie Keyishian's earlier book of poetry, "Slow Runner", which has some amazing images from her life, reflections on family, reflections on places. This time she read mostly from "Demeter's Daughter", her current chapbook, which tackles the Demeter/Persephone myth from a very motherly point of view. She envisions her from many perspectives, including that of a young woman going down the the "bowels of the house" to do her laundry, "where machines would wipe / stains away, semen and dirt, tomatoes ... / The hall reeking of cabbage and the oil / Of sardines that leaked out of the tin, was / dim, for the landlord was saving money". She encounters a drunken Hades on the elevator, and a struggle ensues. She also writes about Persephone "going" off to her marriage to Hades (he waits at the bottom of the hill in his dark car), and she, "sits in the kitchen, hands folded / shoulders wrapped in a shawl / crocheted for a girl who's gone / She's dancing or was. A red candle / sheds wax in the shape of tears she / would cry if she were not so cold."
After the reading, I mentioned an alternative interpretation of the myth to Marge, that suggests that Persephone deliberately ate the pomegranate seed to remain in Hades. In one sense, it's the representation of the mother/daughter tension when the daughter grows up. Marjorie said she hadn't thought about it that way, or heard that version. The Demeter/Persephone myth is a critical one to our modern thoughts about females, sex, and death (all of which are associated). And Persephone is one of those key deities that was taken from the underworld and moved to the sky eventually, along with Dionysus, god of wine, fertility, and foreigners. Western culture was never the same after that.
When both women discussed their creative process, it seems to be a combination of inspiration and disciplined technique, and like most works, one is never satisfied with the results. A particularly talented Honors student where I work asked me before he graduated, "When is a piece of writing ever truly finished?" The only answer I could give him was that at some point, you decide you're finished, even if you could say more. Otherwise, the piece becomes the "El Dorado" of your creativity, perpetually over the next hill and never reached. Marge and Heather both alluded to the fact that they still wanted to change poems they'd already published, with the notable exception of things like sonnets, which have a form that they are more or less resigned to accept.
Driving to work each morning, I encounter some beautiful ruins along the road that I take through the mountains. I am determined to photograph these ruins under just the right lighting conditions, and also to paint them. Whether or not the end result will be art will be a weighty matter.