Impressions of SLAM

This afternoon I visited the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM). As I am sometimes inclined to do, I took along my notebook, in case anything inspired me to write while there. As the art is often inclined to do, it inspired me at various times and from various pieces. Here’s what came out.


Araki Minol, Distant Road II, 1979; St. Louis Art Museum, photo by author

We perch most of the way up the Soul Mountain, a respite during our climb, and as we do I turn a head to look back at the wy we’ve come. Tens of thousands of steps upwards, upwards, ever upwards, this pilgrimage has been harder with each passing day, and yet, a moment like this – a brief respite, a chance to Preview the past and how far we’ve come – is welcome, not just for the termination (if only for a moment) of the incessant pounding of the hike, but for a glimpse of the earth’s natural beauty, arrayed out before us like a divine display of pride in the god’s own creation.

Behind, and below us, we see the craggy, snaggle-toothed lesser peaks poking their irregular peak tops out of the smooth, otherwise unbroken layer of clouds. The pure white dazzles int he shimmering morning sunshine, a radiance which would hurt the eyes, were it not also so beautiful that the body sacrifices itself to the risk of permanent damage just to behold the beauty of the moment.


Evangeline Montgomery, Sunset, 1997; St. Louis Art Museum, photo by the author

I wonder if this is the feeling of schizophrenia – a mass, a seeming jumbled disorder of conflicting thoughts, emotions, logical or illogical connections between elements that would see (to the outsider) to be nothing more than randomness.

I imagine that, to the jumbled mind, this perhaps makes sense – perhaps the lenses inside the brain so refract and refocus and prioritize the overhwhelm that, instead, it looks like this:

Herbert Gentry, Untitled, 1971; St. Louis Art Museum, photo by author

Smooth lines, patterns emerging, a sense of peace and cleanness at the outset and continuing into the whole of the experience.

There is no challenge here except what I make for myself. What I see as disorder, I know is less a problem of the other being “abnormal” and simply my own failure to apply the right kind of equipment.

What state could I put myself in should I wish to be able to see as the other does, the patterns which emerge from the chaos? How can I simplify my own experience, my own observations, the pre-ordained and rigid mechanics I have learned which are insufficient to make meaning out of something which, to another, clearly has a value beyond ink on canvas?


Gebruder Thonet, Bentwood Spiral, 1885; St. Louis Art Museum, photo by the author

Now, I can see a beauty, a symbolism, a regularity, a meaning behind apiece of art. But for the artist, before it is formed, to have not only the skill to achieve a piece, but a vision of what could exist, were she to apply that skill, is extraordinary.

I know not where that vision comes from. Perhaps it is an inherent tendency in us all, the creative instinct deep inside, that only some choose to listen to, only some choose to obey in the call to make something out of something else.

This was a single piece of wood, 28 feet long, and straight. The Artist, instead of imagining it as cut into smaller pieces and fashioned into a chair – or a picture frame – or an oar; instead of those useful, practical items, he choose to see art – this spiral, this sweeping interlocking interconnecting divergence from reality into imagination. Why? Why not? Because it’s there. Because all could do the same thing, given enough practice; and the greatest practice of all is to listen to the Muse as she whispers. She is always whispering. She is always inspiring.

Do you hear her? Do you obey? Or do you listen to the other whispers, in the other ear, of inadequacy, of limited time, of irrelevance once you have created, of insubstantialism, of ignorance by the rest of them out there once you have finished?

She is persistent, that Muse. but she is not overpowering. So be careful that you do not ignore her. Persistent, yes. Perpetually waiting for you to acknowledge her presence? To obey her directive? To do as you have been inspired? Perhaps not.

Therefore, take heed whenever the call is given. Ignore it at your own creative peril. Obey, and make, and make the world better for having done so.

Writing Practice 12/12/2018

From Reddit/r/WritingPrompts:

You are a murderer who coats your victims’ bodies in cement and plays them off as realistic human sculptures. One of your “works” just got into a museum…

I’m nervous, I guess. Is that what this is? This feeling of lightness, of electricity in my stomach? The doors will open soon, and then dozens of people will get to see my true skill for the first time. I can’t believe how long it’s taken. Ten years after art school, and, finally, my first gallery show! I’m gonna throw up, maybe. Or it’s just nerves. I can’t tell.

I can see them out there, through the glass doors, congregating. Family, friends, a few old college acquaintances who saw the notice on Facebook or Insta. You know, despite all the hard work, I’m glad it’s taken this long to get here. I wouldn’t be so good an artist as I am today without that development of patience, of skill, of practicing my craft, that took this long. And for that, I’m grateful.

Okay…

Here we go… Doors opening!

The curator welcomes everyone. All of us in this new exhibit, the three artists being displayed here for the first time, are waiting to mingle with our new fans (or those we hope may become fans, at least). Over there is Mindi, who makes sculptures out of discarded books. She re-pulps them and makes them back into tree shapes. And there is Kyle, he’s a visual artist, digital medium, and his things look like kaleidoscopes constantly moving and changing on the half-dozen screens behind him.

I only have the one – Study of Human Figure, Realistic, No. 47. It has been a slog. Personally, I thought I was hitting my stride about No. 30, but it still took a lot more effort to get my name out there in the last three years. No. 47 was quite the willing subject / muse / model. He came for dinner and stayed, perfectly still, just as I needed him to be.

I hear a muttering at my shoulder and turn to find two women discussing No. 47.

“He’s a bit pudgy, don’t you think?” Says one.

“It’s supposed to be realistic,” says the other. “All men look like that these days.”

“I suppose,” says the first, with a resigned sigh and a sip of her win from a plastic cup. “They sure don’t make them like they used to.”

“I wonder how he got such detail with cement,” says the second. It’s obvious they don’t recognize that I could answer their questions, being only two feet away from them. Perhaps the curator should have made some introductions. I make a mental note to remind him for the next opening.

By now, my nerves have dissipated. Men and women have expressed interest in No. 47, have given amateurish critiques of my style and technique, have demonstrated their willingness to be the foppish boors they pretend not to be, and have demonstrated also their incredible pretentiousness they don’t care to hide.

Forty minutes into the show I hear a soft, feminine voice at my elbow. “Excuse me, are you the artist?”

I turn to find a slight woman, mid-thirties, holding the program in one hand, cupping her elbow with the other. She smiles, and I smile back.

“Of course,” I say, and extend my hand. “Bradley, nice to meet you.”

“Anna,” she replies, unholding her elbow to shake. “Pleased.” She turns to admire No. 47 once more. “Impressive. You have quite the grasp of reality.”

I blush. The compliment seems rather sincere coming from her. “Thank you. I admit, though, sometimes my models are not very willing subjects.”

She turns once again and faces me.

“Do you ever seek out new models?”

And now it is my turn to feel empowered. “I do,” I say, and pull out a business card. “I think you’d be perfect. Have you ever considered posing?” She smiles, and tucks the card into her pocket.

”Not me,” she says, and gives me a sly, knowing look. “Perhaps my mother in law would be willing. Shall I tell her to come at eight tomorrow?”

I understand completely. “Seven,” I say. “And have her bring a bottle of wine.” It is now my turn to smile as she winks and turns away. Perhaps, I think, I have found No. 48 much more easily than usual.

Writing Practice – 9/5/2018

Heart & Soul, p 201

“While most young men dream of becoming a professional athlete, Herschel Turner dreamed of becoming an artist.”

He would read books on Matisse and Magritte. He practiced cubism, sculpture, and 3-dimensional art. He painted wide swaths of canvas with daring colors, red and blue and green and orange, sometimes merging them into a dun-colored masterpiece that seemed almost indistinguishable from those hanging in the Guggenheim.

Herschel painted, sculpted, or cast into bronze by instinct. He’d seen all the others and determined to do it better, more simply, more provocatively, than they had. Just why anyone ever actually bough his shit was still remained a mystery to him. He even tried to throw them off with obsequious artist’s statements like

“This piece transcends the boundaries of language and meaning, reaching beyond context into meta-context and sub-comprehension. It is as if my feline inner nature were awakened by the transcendence of participation in the birth of this piece, and the reality has been shattered by its convergence into the conscious plane. Really, it is a sight to behold, one of the Nine Wonders of the Modern World, alongside Barack Obama, the gyroscope, and the theory of the electroweak force. Humanity is worse off for its participation in such drivel.”

And yet he was called a revolutionary. A genius. A man out of his own time. For us, as art critics, we could not see the value in what he’d been doing. But maybe that was because we were too close to the subject, to steeped in mythology and folklore of what had gone before to truly be able to step back and accept it for what it was, art, ART, art that moved people. That challenged them, that made their hearts melt or yearn or burn, and so they had to have his pieces, critical analysis be damned. I wish we could have seen IT. I wish we could have opened our minds, our eyes, just once, to see with that naive, childlike vision, to take in something just as it was, just as it made us feel, not what we thought it meant or with an eye to judge how well the execution outpaced the idea of the thing. OH, to be simple once more. To have that bland, blank stare of childhood, when you can simply like something, and you don’t have to have a reason. I miss those days.

Impressions of the St. Louis Pen Show

Note – This is not a review. I have no qualifications to “review” something like a pen show, as this was my very first one ever. A review implies a value judgment; a “goodness” or “badness” to the experience. As I am in no way qualified to judge this, I’ll simply offer my impressions, rather than evaluation.

I don’t recall how I heard about the St. Louis Pen Show. Probably the radio. But the opportunity to see a unique slice of humanity intrigued me, so I went. Plus, I remembered a story from years back when the radio journalist had visited a high-end pen store, interacted with a “pen presenter”, and got to hold a $38,000 writing instrument. So in the hopes of uncovering some rare jewel of experience, I went to the St. Louis Pen Show on Saturday afternoon.

This is a 4 day event. Thursday through Sunday. There are exhibitors of vintage and current-production pens. There are fountain pens, ball-point pens, and probably other styles I can’t describe. The vast majority of visitors are older, white, and really, really know their stuff. The exhibitors are probably equally split between professionals (new sales of pens, paper, and accessories; restoration services; ancillary products) and hobbyists (those who collect and travel to shows just for the fun of it).

Pen_show_1
Ballroom 1 of 2

There are demonstrations and awards presentations. There are bargains to be had, and unique finds to be uncovered. I don’t know whether I would have adequately identified either.

I asked questions. I asked what makes the difference between a $200 pen and a $500 pen. Some answers are that the smaller quantity of original production, the more rare it will be now and therefore more valuable. Excellent versus marginal condition makes a difference. Original materials make a difference. One pen I was shown came from the 1930s, and the collector said it was obvious that it had never been used. Such pristine condition makes it much more valuable.

The highest-priced pen I actually held was for $1,400. It was over a hundred years old. It had an octagonal barrel made of pearl. Quite unique amongst the many options of materials, and the fact that it had held up so long also increased its value. There were cheap ones, too, fountain pens and ballpoints from $10 or $15 new, and some vintage ones from $15 to $30.

I learned that there are many different widths of nib for fountain pens. These can run from EF (extra fine) through to BBB (triple-broad). And that these sizes are not standard, so a “fine” from one maker might be in between the “extra fine” and “fine” of another.

Pen_show_2
Ballroom 2 of 2

I asked, “What’s the great advantage of a fountain pen over a ballpoint pen?” The answer was, “Well, with a ball-point pen you get at the store, you can have any color you want! As long as it’s black or blue. Maybe red.” Point being, with a fountain pen, you are not limited to just the few standard colors that fill the aisles at Staples. One vendor said he had 27 versions of black. And over 1,400 different colors available!

I learned that there are dozens of mechanisms for filling the inkwell. Classic designs included things like eye dropper fill, creating vacuum with a thumb, a “pressed-coin” bladder, and others. Modern include replaceable cartridges and some kind of screw-thingy that meant you could fill quickly and without mess.

I saw a lot of very fancy pens that looked more like jewelry or works of art than writing instruments. I learned that pens have often been one of the few male jewelry pieces, similar to a watch. While women may be able to wear rings, bracelets, necklaces, and earrings, men have been limited. Watches are one way they can express themselves or set themselves apart from others.

AP_Limited_Editions_1
AP Limited Editons (photo from aplimitededitions.com)

There’s an industry magazine, full color glossy paper, with news of the goings on within the high-end pen world and advertisements for the new fall line. Designers are crafting limited-edition runs of these pieces (maybe as few as 30 or so) in order to create a scarcity that elevates the price. These pens become a status symbol, not a tool. You do not give one of these to your neighbor for him to sign the pizza delivery receipt.

After about an hour, I got overwhelmed. I did not go in knowing what I was looking for, so I was flooded with too much information. If I’d been searching for a specific kind of pen, or a specific kind of ink, or an appraisal of a pen from my collection, I think I would have been able to handle a longer time there. Because I would have been focused, and not distracted by so much of the bright and shiny around. Maybe if I’d had time to step out of the exhibit hall for an hour and take a class, I would have had a break and been able to go for another round. Or, maybe, if I just knew little about what I was doing, I’d have appreciated it more.

I think I’ll go back next year. It was certainly unique. And at only $5 for admission, I can’t say I wasted my afternoon. On the contrary, it was money well spent.