Why artists and artwriting?

February 1, 2014

MY writing about art and artists began for me about 30 years ago, but had an impetus that had begun many, many years before that. The making of images, ‘art’, had been with me since childhood, reproducing comic strip characters for hours on end while lying on my living room floor. Drawing was not something taught — or   encouraged — by the nuns at the parochial school I attended, and, at times, would even get me in “trouble” when my sketches would appear in the margins of my books (sketches that were, more often than not, caricatures of the nuns themselves). The taboo on wasting my time on “such nonsense” was seconded by my parents who never dreamed such activity by a growing boy was of any use — “learn a trade” was my father’s mantra — consequently, none of my early drawings survived (besides, this was still the time of ice boxes which, being wooden, would not support magnets to hang up photos and kids’ “artwork” and stuff). As I grew older, I would almost always have a sketchbook with me (probably introduced into my life by some uncle or aunt who appreciated my ‘talent’), and, while in the Army, did my own ‘comic strip’ (“The Arctic Trooper”) for our Company newspaper while serving in the Arctic and also used to make a couple of bucks drawing caricatures of my fellow soldiers with a magic marker, using their t-shirts as my ‘canvas’. Eventually I advanced to more “realistic” sketches of people, places or landscapes, but none of this ever came to anything since, when I finally got to college in the early ‘60s, a glance at my ‘portfolio’ of trees that looked like trees, or cows that looked like cows, prompted an art professor to tell me that “this isn’t art!” OK. This was the age of rampant “modern abstraction” so I meekly and quietly opted for Literature (writing, mostly poetry, ‘bubbled up’ during my Army years) as a ‘major’, earning a B.A. and M.A. in Liberal Arts and teaching English for awhile at the junior, senior and college levels.

The writing of my first artist profile, Vladimir Bachinsky (1983), in itself had a kind of serendipitous quality about it, its “production” a somewhat offhand affair that, at the time, seemed to pop up out of nowhere, an assignment from an editor who had been publishing a variety of my essays (Lifestyle Magazine) that neither of us knew at the time would become the only kind of essay I would henceforth contribute, viz., “Artist’s Profiles”. I had been freelancing my essays (to Lifestyle as well as other publications) during my years as an English teacher, but the writing of the Bachinsky profile opened my eyes to the fact that I could henceforth combine my love of art and writing by concentrating on ‘artwriting’. In 1984, Cornelia Seckel and I co-founded ART TIMES and the continuation of my profiles were now augmented by regular art reviews and critiques. Both my early love of art and later love of writing, however, seemed to me to emerge from a much deeper urge than to simply ‘draw’ or to ‘say’ — an inner source of power that, throughout my life, has goaded me on to uncovering the “perfect” image and the “perfect’ word that would reveal a profounder ‘meaning’ to my life which transcended what I had been taught as a child and what I had gleaned from a somewhat erratic and peripatetic way of life as I grew older, on through my 5 years of service in the Army (with an almost 3-year hiatus of ‘bumming’ my way across America between bouts of active duty), and finally on to my ‘settling’ down as a teacher in my early 30s. The ultimate answer to “Who am I?” became (and remains) my constant goal and purpose, my ‘reason for being’. My ‘search’ which included exploring many belief systems and ‘paths’ over the years even brought forth a book in 1978, The Vessel of Splendor: A Return to the One which, although originally intended as a personal “meditation”, I realize now is almost a prescient ‘blueprint’ for my 30 years of profiling artists, since the quasi-autobiographical main character is commanded to “Plumb their souls…search that Sacred Spark in your own kind and to kindle it into a mighty flame…”. Somewhere along the line, I began to believe that it was the image and not the word that “was the beginning”. Words, I discovered, simply obfuscate (as anyone who has heard a politician campaign or an art critic drone on instinctively knows) — words are simply too squirmy, too slippery, too vague to communicate “truth’. Thus, for me, “In the beginning was the image” and this ‘image’ inspired (i.e. ‘breathed into’) the true artist who was delving the unknown rather than catering to the known market. So, the Bachinsky profile not only showed me that I could combine my love of art and writing, but, as I interviewed more and more artists both here and abroad (I’ve lost count) I became convinced that, if I chose the right artists to profile, I could facilitate my search by understanding theirs. Their “inspiration”, if “divine” as was believed during the Renaissance (hence, ‘breathed into by God‘ — or however you choose to identify or characterize our ultimate Source), seemed that they had an ‘inside track’ that could help me clarify and determine mine. Whatever my artwriting has done for others, it has been largely self-serving (except for the times I chose the wrong artists to write about — my bad, of course, since it took some time and experience to learn how to “read” art, and I was certainly off the mark at times). I’ve learned a great deal over the past 30 years, but, at 80, I still have to confess that my own path is still murky. A few more artists like Susan Hope Fogel, profiled in our upcoming Spring issue, might just get me through the mystery.