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May 11, 2023

Because I Have To

A writer whose work I enjoy and whose opinion I value, asked me why I had written the poem, An Afternoon in Darien, about an interaction I’d had with a feral kitten, rather than writing a prose piece. The question gave me pause. It prompted my thinking specifically about the poem and generally about how in my writings and paintings I focus on moments rather than on the big pictures in which the moments live. In both mediums, I try to tell small stories; snapshots of the meaningful happening inside a much bigger, but more peripheral, context. My stories describe connections because to me they matter more than all the noise around them. I believe that even in momentary, wordless connections, volumes of emotion can be shared and change is possible.

Identifying connections is one thing. Another is rendering them succinctly and yet vividly enough for the reader/observer to really experience the moment. How do I capture the gold nugget using words and/or paints to hone it even further and make it shine within its circumstance? How do I describe any interaction using keystrokes or brushstrokes to lay bare relevance? I try to do this by choosing my tools and my perspective very carefully; avoiding using, what I consider, random, irrelevant words, colors or marks when I work. My method involves whittling down the rich palette of tools available to me until I’ve chosen the ones that best invoke the story I want to tell. As with all things that matter, this is never an easy task; and while it is an effort that often eludes me it is also one that rarely fails to reward me.

By way of an example, here’s what happened recently at an estate sale which I went to because art supplies were listed as some of the items offered. I walked through the house out into an art studio that smelled musty and was truly packed with art supplies as advertised. The big picture included canvases, storage bins, paints, easels, drawing pads and pencils, clay pieces, brushes, frames and other sundries that find their way into an artist’s studio. The snapshot within that bigger picture was an old, stained, wood storage box with one rusted hinge keeping the lid from closing. Dried oil paint and linseed oil scented the box. It held some worn and ancient tubes of paint squeezed into contorted shapes by the hands of the artist who used them. I wanted the box. I wanted the box not just for itself but more importantly for the connection it gave me to the artist who once-upon-a-time used it and the contents within it. The box is a conduit between me and someone I will never meet but with whom I share a need to create.

The woman running the estate sale blathered on about the artist whose house I was in and whose supplies I might buy. I pretended to listen. My husband blathered on about the box and its contents being no better than trash. I didn’t even pretend to listen to his criticism. Instead, I fingered the paint tubes and imagined where in my own studio I might place the box. I wondered if any of the paints were still usable. I thought about how I’d just decided to give my acrylic paints a rest and to start painting with oils again. Finding the box and the paints linked me to the artist and, if any of the paints are usable, will link the artist in a tangible way to something I paint.

The box and its contents inspired a connection. Describing that is only limited by my skill to choose words and colors that give life to what resides in my imagination. It is my imagination that will galvanize any creative works that substantiate the moment when a simple artist’s tool box stopped me and made me really look. I will paint the moment on canvas and write about it in a poem; or maybe this time the words in this prose piece are enough.

And one last share? Maybe I have taken a circuitous route to answer the question that started all this pondering because the answer might just simply be “because I have to”. All creatives express themselves through their creations first and then put the end results out into the world for others to respond to and appreciate with their senses, minds, and hearts. How the artist/writer sees the world can not be separated from what is created. Afterall, all art is personal first before it is universal.

I’d like to finish with this quote from Richard Price. The quote speaks to me of the importance of finding the kernel of human connection inside the larger story because for me it is that kernel that makes a difference. Price said: “The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.” Richard Price