Last Tuesday, I took my Mom for “An Evening with David Sedaris.” It was Dad’s idea – from the foot of my bed. I awake these mornings with him standing there, coffee in hand, and a more-urgent-than-usual creative scheme.
David Sedaris is a widely-read humorist from the suburbs of Raleigh, NC who now lives with his boyfriend, Hugh, in West Sussex, UK. In the theatre he’s elfin, a bit older than I expected, reading his material from a lectern. After, at the chatty book-signing, he attempts to extract nuggets from his fans. Bratty, observant, and playful, he’s one of Dad’s favourite writers.
Tenderness and truth flowed from Sedaris’s selection of crafty anecdotes and puerile gags. Using a sort of literary “bait and switch,” he set us up with a story of preparation for the loss of his aging siblings tucked within a fulmination against a single-bathroomed country house. It reminded me of something to strive for in painting: to nudge meaning from a moment. Getting to the deeper “why?”
Getting to the deeper “why” can be a little chicken and egg-y. Some artists approach their “why?” intuitively, and work toward giving it a voice through their technical skill. Others begin as technicians, and develop (or discover) their “why?” as they become stronger communicators.
Here’s an example, in three stages:
One: Hike up into a mountain col, set up your easel and paint the glacier. Here, you’re telling the story of an artist who paints mountains on location.
Two: Notice that the glacier has receded by about a kilometre since our Canadian master J.E.H. MacDonald painted it in 1928. Now you’re exploring the bigger reason you’re painting the glacier. Suddenly, you’re making notes. Meaningful notes.
Three: Finish the painting with a fat brush, and finish it on location. Now you’re a messenger who tells a larger and more valuable story. By finishing on location, and with the élan that a confident swoosh transmits, you transform your mountain into a shared, personal event. And just as David Sedaris delivers a jewel from a triviality, you monumentalize your outing, nail a truth about the nature of time and connectivity, and ultimately, disclose your spirit.
P.S. “A good short story would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.” (David Sedaris)
Esoterica: Going through Dad’s paintings with him this week has been like looking at a slide show of our lives. His heart and hands are the peaks and valleys, snow patches, backyards, pathways, watercourses, creatures, totems, faces, skies, minor flowers and lonely islets. Dad’s deeper “why?” is present in each canvas moment, each effort a push of his curiosity. He’s a lifelong explorer, experimenter and inventor. Rummaging through this week, we found a painting of Mom. “Every so often my life will feel like a story. It doesn’t have to be a big thing; in fact, most often, it’s just the opposite.” (David Sedaris)
Building a cathedral
by John MacKenzie, Orangeville, ON, Canada
There are certain kinds of people (artists) for whom finding the deeper meaning in things is important. Personally, the outcome of a painting is always better when I have a deeper “Why?” behind it.
Your letter brought back a memory of a story wherein a person asks one stonemason what he is doing and he replies, “cutting a stone.” A second stonemason replies to the same question, “Making the most perfect cut of this stone possible; it will be cut at perfect 90 degree angles.” The third stone mason replies, “Building a cathedral.”
There are 3 comments for Building a cathedral by John MacKenzie
Passion and commitment
by Karen R. Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada
I, too, love David Sedaris’s quirky and witty take on life. I am amused at how he incorporates his own family’s foibles into his observations and take on everyday things. And your musings on your own life, reflected in the subjects and so on, of your Dad’s work, is so clear and affecting. We do paint and enjoy things that define us and reveal what is meaningful to us. The mountains you describe painting, and the changes, are symbolic of your passion and your (and his) commitment to doing what you love and not giving up till you have achieved it.
On the path to connect
by Cary Thompson, UK
As a writer, I have made it part of my process to follow the paths of artists I have admired. Travelling to their locations, I have been able to connect to a deeper “why” in my own writing voice.
Why? Because it is necessary
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
For me, art is all encompassing, sometimes lighthearted, bubbly and joyous. Sometimes it’s solid, sobering and clever. And sometimes I don’t understand it. Maybe it has a story to tell and maybe it’s just a spark of an idea. Maybe it’s a premonition or a crack in the memory, or an inkling of a desire. But always the answer to why is — because it is necessary. Because it communicates. It is always more deserving and rewarding than talk.
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Strong skill, strong idea
by Josh Manley, USA
In art school it was all about the “idea,” without much attention paid to drawing or technical skill. Nowadays when I’m in a workshop I find that everyone is just trying to make a well-painted picture of something. Everyone’s work looks the same and there’s no voice. A nice middle ground between these two is where I want to be with my art: Strong skill with a strong idea beneath.
Each moment precious
by Susanne Clark, Toronto, ON, Canada
When I read your letter, “Magic Hour,” the response was quick and emotional and it took some time for me to return to it. First, it took me back to some wonderful memories I had of years ago with my own dad who was not very available since he was always working those two jobs he had. So when he had a snow day, we had him for a number of hours… very special times building snowmen 6 feet tall, or just walking and talking like you describe with your dad. My father and I were on very different wave lengths but he was quietly supportive of my desire to be an artist and used to send me boxes of brushes while I was in NYC at the School of Visual Arts by day and waitressing at night.
Your dad is so remarkable and generous. He so graciously met with me and my husband when we visited Vancouver a couple of years ago. He took time out of his busy schedule to meet us at that lovely park down the street from where he lived to meet us and talk for a couple of hours. He showed us the house and barn which has been preserved and the boat house with his studio boat. We walked around the park and he showed us where he made many paintings and a film of himself painting.
When I lost my father, I felt like I lost my grounding. What is so important though, is exactly what you are doing, getting the most out of each moment you have. I hope you know that you don’t have to work hard now to get the contents of your father’s brain, much of it is already there and if what I suspect is correct, he will continue to speak to you from other dimensions.
Brotherhood and Sisterhood
by Judy Day, Auckland, NZ
The way your emails ignite and unite the scattered ‘hood of artists and creators of any level puts a real positive spin on the often two-edged sword of today’s computer technology.
Emotions spike interest
by Sam Kaczur, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Over the past year I have come to a standstill in my photography, trying to explore my “why.” I am happy in the moment of the photo session but looking back at past work I get a sense of disappointment and on some occasions a sense of “How did I do that?” and “why can’t I do that now?”
I feel that I am at that second stage you mentioned, starting to make notes on the characters I portray, see the differences and the opportunities, making emotions spike the interest of each image. It took me a lot of failed starts to get there and it was only until I took a step back when I discovered that the answer was in my head the whole time, I just had to get out of my own way.
I am educating myself, by letting my patience take over, allowing each moment to be peeled back and as I relax, maybe I will find that beloved third stage and finish the work with a personal but collective unconscious feeling of awe.
Sparrows are the key
by Karen Standridge, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
I sit looking through the front window at my desk where the computer is, and I watch the small, brown birds fighting each other for a perch on the bird feeder. And I wonder about them and about so many other things. How long is their lifespan, and why didn’t I ever learn about that in school? Are these the same birds that come to the window each time; are they “our” birds, or are they different ones each day? I know that the hummingbirds that come to the cabin each summer are the same ones. Can birds talk to each other? They certainly seem to have very distinct personalities as some are more aggressive and others more docile. Their will to live seems so strong. Every now and then, one of them will fly hard bang into the window. After that, the bird will lie on the ground as if knocked out, probably is knocked out. But then, miraculously, I come back outside a few minutes later and the bird is gone. Once I rescued a very exhausted and frustrated hummingbird from inside the shed at the cabin. It had flown in the open door, which had then closed behind it, leaving it stranded, frantically pecking at the window with those little wings working so hard to save its soul. When I saw it from the kitchen window, I wondered if it would let me capture it for its own good. I entered the shed and immediately cupped my hand over the little struggling bird, and I felt it relax in its virtual trap in my hands. When I opened my hands outside, it flew away, and I could only imagine how thankful the bird was to be flying free again. But what was even more thrilling, for me, was how thankful I was that the bird let me hold it to save its life.
It’s not too often that we get to save a life. Every summer when the hummers come back to Pike National forest, I call them as soon as we get to the cabin. And every year, they come when they hear my voice, even before we get the feeders filled with sweet, warm water and placed right outside my painting window. They come and buzz me gently as if to say, “Hi! We’re back! It’s summer again in the mountains!” I’m so thankful for birds and their great big wills to live. I’m not sure I ever appreciated why the writer of the words of Jesus in the Bible gave such significance to the life of a sparrow: “He knows the fall of every sparrow.” I used to think it was just to teach us that even the life of an insignificant bird is important to God, but now I know I was wrong with that interpretation. The sparrows are the keys to the deeper why.
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