The English poet William Wordsworth (works) had a concept that he called “Spots of Time.” These are small, memorable events that occur mainly outdoors and in touch with nature. According to Wordsworth these spots have lasting quality and are capable of “lifting us up when we are fallen.”
One way that Wordsworth marked this occurrence was in the titling of his work. Tintern Abbey for example, is subtitled “On revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798.” This specificity nails down the time and place of the event as something memorable and worthy. All works of art can follow this form. Recording a personal connection or inspirational detail gives added value to both an observation and a creative act.
Recent mountain rambling and long walks have reinforced my ideas about spots of time. Returning to the studio, I found an avalanche of email on the pros and cons of the digital camera. We visual artists are in the grab and save business, just as Wordsworth was in the poetry business. But we are in a position to hone and augment our powers with technology that the poet could not have dreamed of. Daffodils, butterflies, cuckoos, mountain sheep or mountaintops — our need is to monumentalize. By making a physical entity — a painting, a poem or a tapestry — we freeze a spot and our feelings about it for eternity. The object we create becomes its own spot. When we take our leave, this spot remains behind to say that we were there, we saw, and we passed it on. Thus is a creator measured.
Wordsworth was estimated to have walked 175 thousand miles in his lifetime — much of it alone. An awkward man, he rather crabbed across the landscape. He was essentially a collector, a hunter-gatherer. In his relentless fieldwork he became professional at translating fleeting observations into art. In doing this he laid claim to our requirements for happiness and hinted at the origins of unhappiness. Upon his death in 1850, citizens of his beloved Lake District considered changing the name to Wordsworthshire.
We can ask no greater joy than to pass gently through this place that has been given to us, and make something out of it. Not necessarily to fully understand it, for that might be an impossible task, but to honour it in our own way.
PS: “…nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.” (William Wordsworth, Ode, Intimations of Immortality)
Esoterica: A book that examines spots-of-time phenomena with clarity and brilliance is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. Using Wordsworth, Van Gogh, Alexander Humboldt, Gustave Flaubert, Edward Hopper and others as travelling guides, he opens our eyes to the value of the easily overlooked and the seemingly insignificant. The book brought to mind my own spots. Once, after a particularly tough climb in the Chilcoot Pass, my buddy Robin Bridgman suggested we pause while he read to us Robert Service’s The Spell of the Yukon. On that commanding mountaintop, where you can see forever, a new meaning emerged. The feeling and the place became imprinted in finer grain than any photo — an emotional spin that might last into another millennium.
Words as important as paintings
by Veronika Funk, Airdrie, AB, Canada
I understand the necessity of taking notes while out sketching. My paintings are completed in the studio, but my sketches and notes are my jumping off point, not only of colour, time of day, etc., but also a journal type of format, feelings and my emotional response to the environment more than anything else. After a work has been completed and is fully dry, I take some of my musings and write them on the backs of the canvas so that it can be read if a purchaser would like to know more about what inspired me to make a piece. To me, the work isn’t complete until I add words, as reading is as important to me as painting.
Fine enough to demand eternity
by Joe Jahn, Denmark
Your Spot of time letter made me think of a deep reason why I paint. My paintings are a cry against the fact of death. If we make our paintings good enough, no one will dare to destroy them. Even the worst tyrant only hides the paintings he does not like, because he knows to destroy art is a major crime against the future. So for me the challenge is to make my paintings fine enough to demand their eternity.
A sense of place
by Priscilla Westesen, Bozeman, MT, USA
I sent some photos to a friend yesterday and had called it Hyalite Moments. We used to visit the lake years ago before she moved to Arizona. A very special time. She wrote back that she has printed the photo and has it near her desk at work to remind her of a beautiful place and how she would like to be outside painting. Yes, so many pleasant views, sounds, breezes, and smells (pine trees) of a spot in time can bring back a flood of memories. Our paintings hopefully capture this.
Mud dancing disturbs collecting process
by James Culleton, Montreal, QC, Canada
That ‘grab and save’ part of visual art troubles me sometimes. I’ve always been a collector, but there have been times lately when I felt disturbed by this part of the art making. The first time was at a folk festival where people were dancing around in the mud and everyone had to document the event. And I mean everyone, there must have been a hundred cameras clicking and flashing away. I had a camera, but for some reason I didn’t pull it out. It made me reconsider the apprehending of the image, the rights of the models, privacy, things like that. I sketch from life a lot and I guess this is the same thing, only slower. It was unnerving seeing all those cameras; I guess movie stars get this all the time.
Feeling the spots of time
by Fay Bohlayer, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Although I paint often in Tucson and Jackson, mountains to me mean the Smokeys. Secret hollows, mists, and history — Rhododendron and laurel, footfalls of the Cherokee, Choctaw and Seneca. Freedom for the Scots-Irish newly released from debtor’s prison or Old Country tradition, their music ringing in the hollows, blending with the cry of the hound and the sound of the horn… tumbling waters, myriad plant species, and cabin smoke rise. These are Old Mountains. Black bear and deer roam these woods, joined by coyote and elk, and the red wolf, recently returned home. Sit by your campfire and listen to the song of longing… and hope… and fulfillment.
One valuable purpose
by Martine Gourbault, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I was musing recently about the place of story in our lives on this planet, and the inherent desire we each have to tell our own. Spoken out loud or in whispers, one way or another, our personal history becomes an intrinsic part of the broader history of our species, a thread in the complex interweaving. Write it, paint it, sculpt it, quilt it, collage it, set it to music, blog it, somehow, in some way, sometimes against great odds, we will tell our tale and leave behind traces of our existence. This has to be at least one valuable purpose of making art.
Wandered lonely as a cloud
by Leonard Niles, Lincolnshire, England
If one stands at the spot in the Lake District where the “crowd of daffodils” still grow near the shore of that crystal clear lake you can well understand why Wordsworth was inspired to write the well known poem. The daffodil is one of the most common flowers here in the British Isles — seen by millions of people in abundance every year. The literalists of the day were quick to criticise Wordsworth for wasting his prowess on such a lowly subject but what he saw was only sensitive to his eyes — a spot in time. Wordsworth’s friend, Coleridge, was often seen lying prostrate with his ear close to the ground on the fells — a source of amusement to those who observed him. What they didn’t know of course — and what the locals did, was that he was listening to the rumble of cascading water through subterranean caverns hundreds of feet below him. Another spot in time! “Where Alph, the sacred river ran, through caverns measureless to man, down to the sunless sea.” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Kubla Khan)
Poem in the family
by Linda Ewart, White Rock, BC, Canada
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore.
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but nature more,
From these our interviews in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.
(Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by Lord Byron)
These lines are quoted at the beginning of The Deerslayer written in 1841 by James Fenimore Cooper and quoted by my grandfather, Clarence Ewart, in the photograph album he composed after a 230 mile canoe trip in 1917. The poem was in turn passed on to and often quoted by my father Peter Ewart.
The poetry of experience
by Linda Saccoccio, California, USA
The more I am present, the more I tingle with the delight of a moment. These miraculous and often simple and subtle moments are inspiration for creativity. Being open and receptive in front of a painting allows for the same delight in the moment. It brings forth the essence of experience and self-reflection unified. It is fresh and alive. I am invigorated by this work, and when I leave my studio with this heightened sense of perception, I see with a gratitude for life.
Definition of plein air
by Melinda Collins, San Francisco, CA, USA
I make extensive use of my digital camera and computer to refresh my memory of places and moments that arrest my attention as possible painting subjects, but are too fleeting to paint on the spot. This brings up a question I have about the current use of the term “plein air.” I see much opinion expressed by artists about the superiority of painting outdoors over studio work, yet many painters who call themselves “plein air” painters do much of their work in the studio. They use paintings done outdoors as references, along with photos, for the studio works. I work this way, but don’t feel comfortable calling myself a “plein air” painter because most of my large work is done indoors. My understanding of the term is that it refers only to work completed outdoors, yet now it seems to cover almost all realistic landscape painting. Perhaps I am misunderstanding the use of the term. It wouldn’t matter to me, except that I often read comments by artists who give the impression that all their work is completed outdoors and that this is superior to work completed in the studio. I think work should be judged, not by where or how it is done, but by the finished product. Is it a good painting, whether or not it is a realistic depiction of a certain color of light or time of day? All good paintings seem to emanate from a place inside the particular artist anyway, so why are galleries, artists, and magazines getting hung up on the description of work as “plein air” instead of just calling it “representational landscape”?
(RG note) Thanks, Melinda. You’re right, there’s a lot of baloney when it comes to how much is done indoors and out — and how slippery the catch-all term plein air is becoming. Like that recent photo of the guy painting, looking at the screen of a digital camera, while blasting along on a train. “Hardly constitutes plein air,” the purists yelled. My take on it is that true outdoor painting — right down to almost the signature — is a terrific creative tool that refreshes the senses and gets you a lot of mosquito bites. I agree with you — good art is good art whether it’s done outdoors or not. With regard to galleries and magazines, there is currently a trend which tries to equate plein air with “authentic.”
Artists and privacy laws
by Elizabeth Garat, Memphis, TN, USA
I just got back from a painting excursion to the mountains of Tuscany to discover a letter in my mailbox from our local PBS affiliate to whom I donated a painting for a fundraising auction for public television. It is the second time I have donated a painting to their cause. This year, again, I requested that the name and contact information of the high bidder be given to me for my records and asked that in the event my painting is not purchased on air, that it be returned to me. In the pre-printed form letter I’ve received back from the station, they inform the artists that due to privacy laws they can no longer provide any information on the high bidders, but that they will encourage the bidders to contact their artist who created their piece by attaching a letter giving the bidder the name and contact info of the artist. Isn’t this a bit one-sided? I feel I need to respond, but would appreciate your thoughts before I do.
(RG note) Thanks, Elizabeth. It doesn’t bother me that the privacy of collectors needs to be protected. People buy art at galleries and at charitable events for all kinds of reasons, and the option of preserving anonymity can be one of them. Tax concerns, potential theft, humility, and wishing to maintain a low profile are some of the main reasons. I think your PBS affiliate is being thoughtful in encouraging bidders to contact their artists, but this is as far as it should go. I appreciate that it’s unpleasant for some of us who also have the inclination and the ability for documentation — that some works just go out into the Diaspora and evaporate.
by Cathy Campbell
I have been asked to provide a bio for venues that are starting to carry my work. I want to acknowledge two artists who have provided invaluable instruction, challenge and inspiration to me in classes and workshops. What is the correct etiquette for including these names in my bio? Do I need permission from them? How do I make sure it doesn’t just sound like name-dropping, as I am sincerely indebted to these artists?
(RG note) Thanks, Cathy. A discreet mention is okay and generally welcome. You need not ask permission. You need to ask permission for a lengthy quote — and it’s a good idea to get the quote right. There is name-dropping and there is name-dropping. Done with taste and restraint it does both parties no harm. Thinking your question over a bit further, if you feel that a particular person might rather prefer anonymity, it might be an idea to phone them up and ask.
Still Life on Table
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Luke Charchuk who wrote, “John Ruskin encouraged J.M.W. Turner to poeticize his titles, i.e. The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up 1838.
And also Gregory Packard who wrote, “What Wordsworth suggests are ‘spots of time’ I refer to as the ‘pinpoint of a memory’ — a glimpse into my experience.”
And also Connie Powers who sent the following poem by Zekeriya Ahmet Efe, Age 5:
When the wind rolls
And the sky is blue
And the bluebirds hum
And the clouds sing
To the wonderful and happiness.