The search


Dear Artist,

Mist rises on a mile-long white sand beach. It’s an island — almost deserted. There’s dazzle: puddle-jumping, tide pools, crabs crawling, seaweed and sun-bleached, haphazard logs. Behind, the dark forest looms: salal, spring flowers poking. Gulls call. Eagles watch. I’m on a search.


“4 and 3 Drawing” ca.1979-81
by Brice Marden (b.1938)
Phil Schrager Collection, Omaha

We artists have an environment in common: we search through it, we dig in it. We look here and there for subjects, ideas, better work, deeper meaning, farther sight, creative joy. I’m on my bike, a mobile easel tows behind. The watchman shakes his head. “A couple of sandwiches short of a picnic,” he says. There’s a false start, a sortie, an essay, a sketch, shutterbugging, viewfinder-thinking, mixing and matching. “I am just trying to find a way to make pictures.” (Jasper Johns)

Smells and feelings that can almost be painted. Air that might, in a pinch, be included. Gradations, lost edges, patterns of rock, counterpoint, the pieces of my little puzzle and maybe yours, too. What might be good today? Some things picturesque, painterly, doable. Others best left to Nature or another, braver hand. “To be on a quest is nothing more or less than to become an asker of questions.” (Sam Keen)


“Untitled # 3” 1986-7
oil on linen 72 x 58 inches
by Brice Marden

Where am I going? What am I looking for? What am I running from? What can I do with this magnificence? Open up here. Be new. “One shouldn’t go looking for something, but rather to see what is there.” (John Cage)

I’m feeling a remarkable sense of power right now. Away from the tarmac and the dieseling in this salt air, I feel the force. “Trust the force, Luke.” It’s something to do with the mystery of the search. Perhaps the faith that somewhere, somehow, there will be something here. Do you ever have the feeling that you just know it? “Painters are amongst the priests — worker priests of the cult of man — searching to understand but never to know.” (Brice Marden)

“I am hunting lost pieces of myself.” (Berthe Kaline Naparrula)


“#16 – Etchings to Rexroth” 1986
etching by Brice Marden

Best regards,


PS: “Desire, ask, believe, receive.” (Stella Terrill Mann)

Esoterica: The American primitive painter Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) reported watching an inch-worm crawl up a twig and then, clinging to the very end, revolve in the air, feeling for something to reach. “That’s me,” he said, “I am trying to find something out there beyond the place on which I have a footing.”


This letter was originally published as “The search” on May 3, 2002.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“A painting, you know, it’s all dirty material. But it’s about transformation. Taking that earth, that heavy earthen kind of thing, turning it into air and light.” (Brice Marden)




  2. Barbara Belyea on

    I wonder about searching … for inspiration? for a subject? The quotation from John Cage is worth a thought: NOT searching, instead seeing what’s there. Harder to do than it seems. I think of creativity as openness, readiness, rather than a hunt. The moment of performance (painting, writing, etc) may not come for a long time and can’t be forced. But there is lots to do while living in the desert: keeping limber with technical exercises, learning rules that you may or may not break some day, watching, listening, waitingnowing, as Cage did, the value of artistic silence.

  3. This was a very special, poetic, universal. Your father was incredible, as you are for sharing. I have sent this to my best friend, a fabulous artist who is stuck with”nothing to say”. I hope this inspires her to pick up a brush or pencil again.
    Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  4. Today I’m preparing a slide show and conversation about the joys of spring for a memory impaired audience . Today’s letter, The Search, has focused my ideas on the power of nature and our responses to it. My hope is to convey how our senses are brimming with the possibilities of life every spring.
    Thank you for sharing these timely thoughts.

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