The thing on the wall

Dear Artist, A remarkable old black and white photograph of Henry Miller, taken when he was living in Big Sur, California, shows a small room, almost a shack, fairly tidy, with books and a few of the simple staples of the writer’s life — paper, pen and ink. But something else in that room has always made me curious. I wonder if you can find it?

Henry Miller

It’s curious because I’ve had the same thing hanging up in all my own studios since my teens. I bought it in a junk store. It made me smile. It appealed to my feelings of power and my secret desire to control things. It’s still here. Just now I dusted it off. It’s a nightstick — a truncheon — I call it my billy club. I’ve never actually hit anyone with it. I always suspected Miller had it as a weapon to fend off the demons that often beset creative folks. I’m happy with that idea. Miller gave his fellow writers a set of commandments — eleven of them. Here they are, only slightly abridged: 1. Work on one thing at a time until finished. 2. Start no more new books. 3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand. 4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. 5. When you can’t create, you can work. 6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers. 7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it. 8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only. 9. Discard the Program when you feel like it — go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude. 10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing. 11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards. For painters, I’ve always liked Miller’s commandments except the first two and the last. In the first two, I’m a believer in multitasking — maybe multitasking is easier and more valuable in painting. But in the last, I think he would have approved, in our case, of putting painting above writing. Passionate people always put their main passion first, and he knew that. Goodness, he knew that. Even if we have to sometimes hit ourselves on the head with a billy club. Best regards, Robert PS: “The world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.” (Henry Miller, 1891-1980) Esoterica: Miller told writers to “keep your exclamation points under control!” “Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose,'” and “leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” Miller was an intense guy who didn’t care for boredom. When bored with writing, he painted. Because paintings are “read” in a glance, the viewer can skip with ease over the boring parts and get to the good parts. Flat, uninteresting parts of paintings are, in fact, a ruse to get the viewer to see what needs to be seen. Here’s another letter I wrote about Henry Miller: Die Happy.   Found the ‘Billy stick’ by Rad MacKenzie, Gravenhurst, ON, Canada   I was curious about your mystery item and had to see what I could discover – that teaser got me searching around until I spotted an odd item next to the window, a mystery until l saw a similar thing on the wall behind you in your picture — A Policeman’s “Billy” or nightstick. When I looked over your page again and saw a reference to “Billy” I was embarrassed to think how thick I was not to have made a connection earlier. Anyway, it was an entertaining challenge, thanks for the bit of fun. I was also surprised to recognize the desk. I suppose it was a common enough style, but had its twin in my room as I grew up — called “Mission Style.” It was partner to a “Morris Chair.” which is also still in the family, from about the same time period (1920’s) but not exactly of the same design style.   Inspired or not by Carol Reynolds, Honolulu, HI, USA  

oil painting
by Carol Reynolds

I especially agree with Henry Miller’s commandments 3, 4, and 8. I also like the quote: “The road to success is always under construction.” Artists need to work no matter how they feel or whether they are inspired or not. Paint regardless, and enthusiasm and inspiration will occur while you work. All artists are familiar with how, while working on one painting, it will often times inspire you to create another painting or a whole series. Pablo Picasso said it well: “Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.” After over thirty years of painting professionally, I am sometimes nervous about a new painting but, as Miller says, I need to “work joyously and calmly” and just enjoy the process. And I agree with you, Robert, about multitasking, particularly because I work primarily in oils and there is a need to have 4 or 5 paintings in various stages going at the same time. There are 2 comments for Inspired or not by Carol Reynolds
From: Jeanette R. — Oct 04, 2012

I love this painting. The stripes, along with the orange against the red, give it so much LIFE!

From: Christie Smith — Oct 05, 2012

It also makes me smile as a self-portrait….Double meaning of reflections….

  The value of the club by Kay Paget, Wellington, New Zealand  

oil painting
by Kay Paget

I wonder how many others also have a ‘billy club’ or truncheon? I have one which my late father-in-law gave me many years ago, just in case I needed it! Tom Paget was a policeman — a village bobby in a small NZ country town — and the truncheon was part of his police equipment. I still have it; today it resides under the seat of my car, just in case I need to break a window to get out of the car in an accident, or more likely, to break a window to rescue someone else in trouble. (I was an active member of St John Ambulance Brigade for many years and the truncheon became an accessory to my first aid kit — still is, just in case!) Perhaps I should threaten myself with it when I procrastinate about starting a new painting. (RG note) Thanks, Kay. What surprised me was the number of artists who wrote personal emails to confess they had a billy club in their possession — according to my assistant Sarah, more than forty and still counting. What’s going on? Are we secret pugilists? Or, like Kay, do we intend to do good someday with our club? For some artists, it seems to be their only club. There is 1 comment for The value of the club by Kay Paget
From: Dorothy — Oct 07, 2012

I like this painting very much. Nice bright colors!

  Squeeze out one more by Shirley Delaet, Troy, OH, USA  

“Still Life”
original painting
by Shirley Delaet

I also have a billy club in my studio and it has been there for more years than I can remember. It belonged to my Dad and I confiscated it from him when I was a child. It has always added a sense of security to my studio, my safe (and sacred) place. I can relate to Henry’s eleven commandments but I have had the feeling lately that I should disregard the 1st and 2nd commandments and start working on multiple pieces at a time. It is just too hard not to think of the next painting! I won’t live forever so the “next” painting will never exist. I prefer to think that I can squeeze just one more it before it’s all over! I guess I am saying “Paint like there’s no tomorrow.” Commandment 6 has me a bit confused. Does it say the same thing as #1 and #2 but in a different way? What is your take on it? (RG note) Thanks, Shirley. Yep, six is redundant. He was reminding himself again. He had a mind like a grasshopper. There is 1 comment for Squeeze out one more by Shirley Delaet
From: Anonymous — Oct 05, 2012

Beautiful painting! I agree, work on more than one at a time. Bonnard had 7 going at a time. It keeps your eye “fresh”.

  Shillelagh dept. by Lindell Stacy-Horton, Oregon, USA  

“Over Under”
acrylic painting
by Lindell Stacy-Horton

I have a wonderful shillelagh I picked up in the woods near Mendocino, California when I lived there long ago. It fell into the path right in front of me, so I figured it must be mine. I’ve had it ever since. I used to carry it in my car, an old ’63 VW bug, discreetly under the front seat, for “protection,” though I never actually had to use it. It is the dead part of a branch from a large old rhododendron tree, which had developed a condition known as “witch’s broom,” causing a gnarly growth at the end of a branch, which gradually causes the branch to wither and die, becoming very hard and dense. I have it leaning up against the wall right by the doorway to my house, and have encountered it accidentally with my bare toes while vacuuming. Thought I’d die! It is truly a weapon. Maybe I should move it to my studio? (RG note) Thanks, Lindell. Other studio weapons reported were baseball bats, cricket bats, fish bonkers, wooden mallets and knitting needles. One tomahawk was reported. There is 1 comment for Shillelagh dept. by Lindell Stacy-Horton
From: Anonymous — Oct 05, 2012

I would recommend taking a self-defnese class for personal protection. Just having a club doesn’t mean that you will be able to use it effectively if an unfortunate need arises. It just gives one a false sense of safety.

  The risk of creativity by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA  

“A rose so sweet”
oil painting
by Rick Rotante

Being a painter, I find that when inspiration isn’t there, I write. I’ve been writing short stories, lengthy stories, playlets, and poetry for years. I even wrote a full length movie that I took to a producer. It was rejected. I have been writing a screenplay for years now between working on my painting career. I find it helps take my mind off the problems I may be having in painting. I believe all creative people use other outlets to relieve the mind. Some artists cook, others fly planes, some do the simplest thing and walk it off. Miller determined that being an artist is difficult. Not just the painting side of it, but the creative side along with public and business sides. The two sides of the brain, while feeding each other, seem to me to be anathema. It’s hard to say in words, but being artistic puts me at odds with society. How I work, the hours of thinking, doing nothing in the service of art baffles others. Working for hours to get a work right, reworking and discarding much, throws my friends into a tizzy. They like it, so it has to be good. I do believe in the tormented artist mind and I don’t mean the Van Gogh way. Creativity is risking everything you are with the knowledge that most won’t get it. There are 2 comments for The risk of creativity by Rick Rotante
From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Oct 05, 2012

Rick, I can so identify with what you said here. I make purses and repurpose vintage jewelry as a hobby and to walk away from a painting in progress. It helps the mind work on problems without “really” working! And what you said about others being baffled and not understanding … wow … no truer words were spoken. They just don’t get i!

From: Marie Pinschmidt — Oct 05, 2012

Interesting. After many years of painting, I took up writing and found the two feed off each other. I now have three published novels and a memoir. This wouldn’t have happened had I not become a bit stale with my painting. If I’m stuck in writing, I go paint. It always helps.

  A single painting is a love affair by Deborah Elmquist, Port Orange, FL, USA  

“Italian Repast”
oil painting
by Deborah Elmquist

Miller’s first and second statements resonated with me hundred percent. When you said you disagreed with it, I had to chime in on the discussion. Brain function, nurturing issues, or maybe personality, not sure what causes it, dictates whether you can work on one project at a time or you can have more than one project going at a time. Obviously, working on more than one painting may be more productive and a diversion when stuck and you need a break to gain insight. However, for me, a single painting is a love affair at the time I am creating it. To leave it and focus on a different one would be like leaving a passionate lover to go and be with someone else. Graphic but you get the idea. For me, it has always been that way. When I was younger, I sewed. I never could go and buy lots of different fabrics that were great deals or particularly beautiful. Nope, I picked out one piece of fabric at a time, cut it out and made my garment before buying another piece of fabric. One thing I am sure about is that when I begin a painting I can’t wait to see my envisioned image come to fruition. That is a momentum that stays with me caring me to work through the highs and lows of each creation. As an amateur writer, I get it. Could you go to a movie, walk out in the middle, and go to a different movie next door, and maybe do it again, not seeing the ending all in one sitting? There are 2 comments for A single painting is a love affair by Deborah Elmquist
From: Susanne Loutas — Oct 05, 2012

i love your painting! It contains such a harmony of colour and composition along with those simple shapes that it is an entire universe unto itself. I can see why you would stay with it exclusively til done. I have worked both ways myself, usually one portait at a time, while a series will lend itself to skipping about. In nature, especially in an impressionistic style, the source is all around you, one ray of light on many trees, and in a series the composition is really the collection rather than a single picture. Who doesn’t flit around with burnt umber on the brush poking at different spots to keep the parts unfied, or speak in the language of a new insight?

From: Tatjana — Oct 05, 2012

Very interesting comment. I have always been a multitasker, but the happiest moments are when I can focus on one painting and forget everything else. The analogy with a love affair is a good one.

  Manage your current easel by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada  

“Cypress Trail”
acrylic painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

This one rang loudly to me today: “10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.” The stuff that is bursting to get out sometimes freaks out the thing that is on the easel, and the snowball of disasters starts to form. Here is another good quote that I read yesterday. It connects me to all those thousands of people who have for centuries been standing in front of a painting with a hesitant brush and talking themselves through a difficult passage: “Exasperated by certain people’s photographic and inane perfection… for Christ’s sake, were the mountains blue, then chuck on some blue and don’t go telling me that it was a blue a bit like this or like that, it was blue wasn’t it? Good — make them blue and that’s enough!” Paul Gauguin according to Vincent Van Gogh (in letter #805) There are 4 comments for Manage your current easel by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
From: Anna H. — Oct 04, 2012
From: Anna H. — Oct 04, 2012

I forgot to add, I love all your paintings you’ve ever posted! Thanks for being an inspiration!

From: Karen — Oct 05, 2012

Your quote from Gauguin made me think of a situation in the gallery I’m at, where someone came in one day and was looking at another artist’s work. The artist does exquisite seascapes, with old full rigged ships or schooners (this being the east coast). The man who was looking at the paintings groused to me that “the ocean wasn’t that colour blue”….(it was ultramarine blue)… and I said, “but he’s an artist, and artists can do whatever they like as far as choices go”… I was amused at this man’s critique based on what? His experience? The painting was lovely, blue paint notwithstanding….

From: Tatjana — Oct 05, 2012

Thanks very much Anna!


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The thing on the wall

From: Robert Sesco — Oct 02, 2012

Robert, how clever you are to turn the use of the nightstick into a metaphor for a tool of discipline, directing our attention again and again to our passion and not our distractions. I chuckled at your shrewd turn of phrase, and I think that Henry Miller would have certainly delighted in it as well.

From: ReneW — Oct 02, 2012

Sometimes we need to be hit over the head in order to get our minds straight….metaphorically. I think I need a nightstick or two in my studio as well. There are too many distractions in my life. I need to get back on tract.

From: Rose-Marie Burke — Oct 02, 2012

There is nothing curious about that nightstick. It is there and handy to keep meddlesome people and life’s other responsiblilities at bay, those things that rob artists of the time and concentration needed to work on the art. I want one. I’ll even settle for Darth Vader’s light saber. Where can I order one?

From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Oct 02, 2012

I agree with Robert about the last rule changing it to making Art, however the first two rules, with regard to painters, should refer to starting other projects that have nothing to do with making Art. Often we are trying to multi task other stuff while we are painting or making our art like reading emails, working on volunteer jobs or housework. Instead while we are in the studio we should be working on stuff we are making. I can paint several paintings at one time moving back and forth between them as things dry or need to rest while I re-evaluate, but if I start working on other less creative tasks I will loose the momentum.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Oct 02, 2012

I love the ad someone placed for his typewriter…”Typewriter for sale, only four letters used.”

From: Jackson Byrne — Oct 02, 2012

Miller was often an angry man, hence all the expletives. But there might be a simple reason for that billy club. It was used to prop open the window.

From: George Brimacomb — Oct 02, 2012

The windows are the horizontal sliding kind–wouldn’t need a prop.

From: Marvin Humphrey — Oct 02, 2012

Working only on one “book” at a time can be translated as one “show” at a time. The many character developments, episodes, and building a main theme can be construed as assembling a collection of individual works of art.

From: Rich Mason — Oct 02, 2012

I too must yearn for power and wish to control things as I also have a billy club hanging on a door knob. It’s been with me for about 45 years. Never had to use it but would miss it if it wasn’t there.

From: Paul RW Anthony — Oct 02, 2012

Interestingly enough, I have one as well. I thought it was a ‘baling pin’ used aboard the old ships with sails. Perhaps it truly is just a ‘billy club’ or such but I like the idea that it was used aboard ship better…………oh, well…… each his own…….or some such.

From: Angela Hennessey — Oct 02, 2012
From: Sophia Moore — Oct 02, 2012
From: Margie Cohen — Oct 02, 2012

I smiled when I saw the billy clubs in the photos. My father and grandfather were both gentle kind men who, I’m sure, never hit anyone, but when we went through their homes at the end they both had billy clubs hanging in a corner. Perhaps, as a woman (who was taught a bit too much submission in her childhood) I should have kept one of them and hung it in my studio. I’ll just have to paint one!

From: PJ Reece — Oct 02, 2012

The “happiest man alive”… that’s Henry. Look at him — broke, as always. But what writer wouldn’t trade places with him? He’s a writer’s writer. Thanks for this window into the writing life.

From: Lenore Swift — Oct 02, 2012

I have a baseball bat in the corner of my studio.

From: Lionel Pasternak — Oct 02, 2012

It’s actually a “belaying pin” Paul. A stick used to hold lines of rigging on old sailing ships. The Billy club looks a bit like one.

From: Lynn Daignault — Oct 02, 2012

Yes, the billie club! Sorry, I read the entry first! Thanks for your wonderful wit and wisdom, I truly enjoy your words and thoughts.

From: Allan Gill — Oct 03, 2012

I, too, have two “things” on my wall – a Night Stick and a Billy, both in new condition, that belonged to my father, who in the ‘thirties was a BC Provincial Policeman. The items were part of his uniform and rarely used. The Night Stick was to quell unruly mobs during the riots in BC in the ‘thirties, and he used to say that he felt sympathy for the strikers and would only strike them on the bottom from horseback!

From: Jackie Knott — Oct 03, 2012

The only thing on my wall that gives me pause and continues to prod me is a clock. When I was younger it was simply a device to measure and tell me what time it was. Odd how appointments then were so very important to be here or there, and on time. The older I get, and especially this last year having lost a few souls close to me, the actual hour means so very little. But the ticking of that clock reminds me there will come a day when I will no longer paint and I will no longer write. There will be more work accrued in my earlier years than remain in my latter years. Depending on our personal decade, one can assume “XX” years of remaining productivity. Some of us will have more and some less. I hope when that time does come I can look back with satisfaction with what I do leave and what I have done. Hmmm … a clock without numerals with just “XX.” That might be worthwhile.

From: Gail Caduff-Nash — Oct 03, 2012

Wow, that’s spooky. Who keeps billy clubs on the wall? I thought they were meant for cars, since that’s where my dad kept his. I know it might be handy for paintings that drive me crazy, or for use on the computer when it messes with me. And keeping the window open.

From: Roberta Salma — Oct 04, 2012

Years ago at a painters’ workshop in Monterey, CA (at Asilomar), myself and several other artists visited the Henry Miller Studio/Gallery in Big Sur. Once his home, you described it perfectly. At the gift shop we all purchased white sweat shirts with the quote you used, “To paint is to love again” accompanied by some of his art work on both front and back of the shirts. Had we been bright business people we could have made a killing by buying up a bunch and selling them back at the workshop for double! Every artist wanted one. Years went by, the shirt wore out and no more are to be found. The library/studio/gallery decided not to remake them, I guess. I wish they would as it was the best looking sweat shirt I ever owned and one I was always proud to wear. It started many a conversation. If you have any influence in this matter, please voice it to the powers that be. I do still wear mine, although it’s stained and minus its cuffs and more than a bit faded.

From: Warren Criswell — Oct 04, 2012
From: Kalim Prasad — Oct 04, 2012

Both writing and music are read in a linear fashion, but paintings are read “all at once” and only subsequently admired or condemned for their individual notes. Thank you so much for these valuable letters.

From: Toby Frew — Oct 04, 2012

I have a sling shot.

From: Laurel — Oct 04, 2012

I have my father’s “British Columbia Ten Times Cubic Scale Rule” I have no clue how it was used, but there’s a metal foot at one end, and after 36″ of number charts, there’s a smooth, fatter, rounded wedge. Still has varnish on most of it. Scalers were hired to calculate timber, but he likely trained many of them, and calculated his own anyway. Not ever meant as a weapon, but it stands against the wall, and reminds me of Dad and how hard he always worked.

From: Dianne Clowes — Oct 04, 2012

I think Catherine’s paintings are lovely! Light and delicate and somewhat ethereal. Perhaps more could be done with depth but then- would it be an improvement? It might destroy the lightness….

From: Karen R. Phinney — Oct 05, 2012
From: Carol Green — Oct 05, 2012

Catherine, I think these paintings are very well done but I see what you are saying. Since you are painting people, please give me a reason to care about them. They all seem rich, lovely, gentle folk but maybe they are more interesting, they have talents or quirks. Maybe you can use your sense of humour to give us something more.

From: Craig — Oct 05, 2012

Darn! Now I wish I had a billy club. About the meanest thing I have in my studio is an office stapler.

From: Betty Senger — Oct 05, 2012

“What’s wrong with this picture?” was how I took your challenge. to which, I found that the glass cupboard (next to the Billy Club) had two different sizes of paned glass. (Using left brain).

From: andre satie — Oct 05, 2012

Catherine, there is nothing “so what?” about your work. Your use of color, the lost and found edges, the planes in the fabrics … when will you be giving a workshop? :-)

From: Tim Wang — Oct 08, 2012

I have a Black and Decker drill and no license

From: rachel — Oct 15, 2012

Catherine Stock, I think the paintings are lovely. They remind me of Sargent. The one spark you may be looking for, though, is expression. The subjects all seem to have a similar expression. The mother could have love for her children glowing in her face. The grandfather could have wisdom of years, etc. Just a thought, but all are well done.

     Featured Workshop: Catherine Stock
100512_robert-genn Catherine Stock school visits Held in Africa   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

photograph by Marcus W. Reinkensmeyer, AZ, USA

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes Irene Chaikin of Israel, who wrote, “It is amazing to me that some of those drawings of Henry Miller’s could be worth $20,000.00. They remind me of Picasso and others. I am one of 4 sisters, all artists, in painting and in ceramics. We used to joke that we should set up a webpage called The Weird Sisters.” And also Patty Cucman of Calgary, AB, Canada, who wrote, “When we lived in Houston, we had a fish bonker behind the door in our bedroom. All our neighbours had guns. We still have the fish bonker but it is now in our garage. There seems there is no urgent need to keep in close to hand in Calgary and perhaps in reality there was no need to keep close at hand in Houston but it made us feel safer. Now other things make me feel safer like the comfort of friends and the fruits of creativity. If I can keep cultivating these two things I will be safe — I am sure of it.”    

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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