“With our calculated sensitivity we artists are able to see and to some degree reproduce nuances that others may know of but not be able to express. That’s why we’re so highly paid.” Every once in a while, in a workshop or a speech, I mention something like the above. Funnily, this line always gets a laugh. Artists roll their eyes and think, “Oh yeah — highly paid — who does he think he’s kidding.” I’ve never thought I was kidding.
I’ve always thought of artists as professionals doing their jobs. A doctor, for example, is highly paid for knowing which organ to cut, which knife to use. The same goes for lawyers and accountants. A pilot knows the subtleties of taking off and landing. When the need arises a float-plane may have skis.
Shared by Canada and the USA, Lake of the Woods, at the western edge of the Canadian shield, covers 1485 square miles and has 65000 miles of shoreline. There are 14000 islands. Right now you can walk anywhere on this lake. It’s overloaded with nuance. It’s the third week of April and there’s still three feet of ice. The islets, like new-cut gemstones, rise up from a blanket of dazzling crystal. White and red pines, spruce and cedar reach into the sky and appear to be in worship. Up close, last fall’s birch-leaves — crinkled, sienna — survivors of winter’s stamp. Pussy-willows whisper. Pollen floats. Counter-light electrifies spring’s tiniest buds. Edge-lit birch-bark. The language of courting geese. Pileated woodpeckers drumming and hammering. Vole-routes underfoot, last year’s aspen-fall, a still-frozen beaver-lodge, bracket-fungus on old firewood, deer bones, the ashes of last summer’s crayfish. Early trilliums. First swallows. Bright lichens. Blue bubble-ups in green ice. Delicate gradations of reflected light. Shades within shadows. Nuances not seen until reminded. Nuances not seen until seen.
The straightforward, professional, riches-winning, two-word method of recognizing nuances, both in real life and in spirit: “Fly in.”
PS: “To be able to observe with a stranger’s eye — permits one to see with an artist’s eye.” (Jean Rostand) “Nature possesses more variation and invention than we do. For an artist, it’s a matter of seeing and choosing.” (Mark Adams)
Esoterica: Nuance (Fr. nuer — to shade) means shade of colour or meaning. “A delicate difference.” For a professional artist, “brown” is not quite good enough. “Raw umber” is better.
This letter was originally published as “Nuances” on April 22, 2003.