Art and Gratitude

Years before I first encountered a palm tree, decades before I found myself entranced by the watery ribbons of azure, lapis and turquoise entwined around and through the chain of Caribbean islands, I passed through shadows of tangled bougainvillea and tumbling poinciana into a world of tropical dreams. There, I discovered Winslow Homer and his art.

One of America’s premier watercolorists, Homer (1836-1910) moved from New York to Prout’s Neck, Maine in the summer of 1883. His work makes clear his love of the New England coast, yet he often vacationed in Florida, Bermuda and the Caribbean. His mastery of his medium and his unique vision of the islands produced exquisite renderings of sun-drenched homes, synchronized palms and great, vivid falls of blossoms that seem touched with scent even on the printed page.

On a first trip to the Caribbean, I was stunned to discover the reality of its marvelous palms and beaches had intertwined so completely in my mind with Homer’s portrayal of them it was impossible to untangle the threads.

I had arrived expecting to think, “Winslow Homer’s painting looks like this.” Wriggling my toes into sand softer than sugar and tasting the salt-heavy air, I came to a rather different conclusion. Gazing around at the shimmering islands I thought, “This looks like Winslow Homer.” It was as though the painter had absorbed, intensified, and re-presented the sea, sand and sky in such a way that his paintings were distillations of the islands – purer than reality itself.

That same distillation of reality is a hallmark of another iconic American artist, Georgia O’Keeffe. Her bold, idiosyncratic forms are awash with color, occasionally ethereal as a swallowtail’s wing but more often so intensely saturated the painting seems illuminated from within. Like Winslow Homer, O’Keeffe can leave an observer convinced that reality is only a poor reflection of her art.

In his book Georgia O’Keeffe: Arts and Letters, Jack Cowart considers the relationship of an original O’Keeffe to reproductions.

O’Keeffe admitted to carrying shapes around in her mind for a very long time, until she could find the proper colors for them…  No reproduction will ever do justice to the intensity, the solidity, or the high pitch of these colors.

O’Keefe, on the other hand, seems more interested in the relationship of her vision to reality.

I said to myself, I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me — shapes and ideas so near to me — so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down. I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught.

That process of stripping down and starting anew was both remarkably simple and impossibly difficult. In 1933, she  advised Russell Vernon Hunter, “Try to paint your world as though you are the first man looking at it-the wind and the heat, the cold, the dust and the vast starlit night.” 

O’Keeffe took her own advice well. More often than not, she seems to have been the first person truly to see Taos, Abiquiu, or the Chama River. In like manner, no one ever has conveyed the essence of morning glory, jimson or rose in precisely her way.  Like Winslow Homer, her images often appear more real than reality itself, as though the world arrived on her doorstep one morning and said, “Come here. Let me show you my heart, so that you can convey it to the world.”

She succeeded remarkably well. Looking at her 1938 painting of two jimson weeds, it’s impossible not to say, “Georgia O’Keeffe did that.”

On the other hand, her way of seeing has influenced our own perception of the world so deeply that, when we take time to look at an extraordinarily vibrant flower blooming in the garden, we often say, “Georgia O’Keeffe could have done that”.

And we would be exactly right. Neither Winslow Homer nor Georgia O’Keeffe created the world represented by their art. Yet even as their genius manifested itself in brushstrokes, their willingness truly to see the world, their openness to entering into a deeply intimate relationship with it and a capacity for allowing that relationship to re-shape their vision inevitably has re-shaped ours.

In an essay titled Art and Perception , Richard Rothstein recalls his own early explorations of the relationship between perception and artistic production.

As a young man off on his first world adventures, I was stunned by the revelation that many of the great artists I admired did not invent their mysterious landscapes, the colors and visual signatures of China, Japan, Tuscany and Provence. Rather, they were brilliantly capturing the unique moods, colors, light and shapes that nature had already chosen to create.
I remember gazing over the hills of Tuscany for the first time and thinking, “Oh! So that’s where Leonardo got that.” And I remember the day I realized that Van Gogh was “photographing” (through his unusual lens) the unique palette and landscapes of Provence.

An artist himself, Rothstein reflects on the confrontation with reality in terms of gratitude. “I can only speak for myself,” he says, “but I often walk away from something I’ve just photographed in Manhattan with a sense of gratitude – toward my subject.” Quite rightly, he asks, “How much of an artist’s talent is in his ability to create and how much lies in his ability to record – not just the obvious visuals but also the mood and the energy of the subject? “

Rothstein seems to suggest that if one side of the artistic coin is the artist, the other side is the subject itself. Reality drags the artist – the painter, the writer, the photographer, the poet – over to the face of the cliff, the face of the building, the face of the nameless and forgotten ones among us and says, “This is my gift to you. I am giving you the vision. Now , the responsibility to carry it forward is yours.”

In the end, it may be that artists of every sort are bound together not by canvas or manuscript, not by sonnet or score, but by their deeply personal, intensely visceral response to this gift of vision.  Having seen the world in all of its depth, breadth and particular beauty, they are the ones who rejoice in that vision and gratefully share it with others.

Winslow Homer knew the experience well. As he said, “The sun will not rise or set without my notice and thanks.”  Vincent Van Gogh shared Homer’s impulse toward thankfulness. “I have walked this earth for 30 years,” he said, “and out of gratitude want to leave some souvenir.”  Even among the solemn philosophers there is some agreement, with Nietzsche himself declaring, “The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.”

In truth, if appreciation of the world and expressions of gratitude are marks of the artistic soul, the artists among us might be found in surprising places. Not so many years ago I witnessed a six-year-old running into her house, bubbling and breathless.  “Look, Mommy!” she exclaimed, waving about a fistful of leaves.  “Look what the tree gave me!  I’m so happy! I’m going to make something no one’s ever seen!”

Winslow Homer, Vincent Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keefe, makers of the never-before-seen, are telling us to follow the lead of that child.  “Open your eyes,” they say,”and look at what the world has given you.  Make something of it.  Be grateful.”

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  1. I wonder if the generation of a scene is more agreeable to reproduction if the landscape is, in and of itself, beautiful and color-saturated…as opposed to a gray, flat, mono-toned landscape. Light and mood will dictate of course, but I find photographing the former has many more possibilities in the editing process. Ansel Adams also came to mind in regards to “more real than reality itself.”

    • Monica,

      What an interesting question, re: saturated color vs. monotone. I’ve been talking recently with another photographer about the relative value of a technique she uses. She transforms color photos to black and white, adjusts sharpness and exposure and then returns the color. She says that, in her experience, it’s much easier to get things “just right” in black and white. She began doing it with old family photos, most of which were tintypes, sepia and so on. She said even with those, editing in black and white yielded far better results.

      I’m no photographer, so I don’t know – but I thought it interesting. I’ve tried it with some very old family photos, and it’s worked well.

      Something else that comes to mind is winter photography. There are stunning photos of snowscapes which haven’t a lick of color – and yet they are beautiful beyond words.

      As for Ansel Adams – several photos came to mind immediately. I thought especially of his “aspen” photos, like this one. There are others just as extraordinary. The sense of seeing the trees “lit from within” certainly is there, at least for me.

      Linda

  2. Here I sit just a handful of minutes away from Georgia’s birthplace, Sun Prairie, WI. I can tell you she may have run from the dreary winters of this place, but she had her beginnings in wide open sky. I love “…strip away what I had been taught.” How true.

    Before I even saw your reference to Van Gogh I was thinking of him. When I feel that gratitude that’s when I know everything is right with me, right then, it’s all perfect.

    • Martha,

      I have a feeling you’ll enjoy this little passage from Joan Didion’s essay on O’Keeffe. Writing in “The White Album”, she says,

      “At the Art Students League in New York, one of her fellow students advised [O’Keeffe] that, since he would be a great painter and she would end up teaching painting in a girls’ school, any work of hers was less important than modeling for him. Another painted over her work, to show her how the Impresionists did trees. She had not before heard how the Impressionists did trees, and she did not much care.”

      “At twenty-four she left all those opinions behind and went for the first time to live in Texas, where there were no trees and no one to tell her how not to paint them. In Texas, there was only the horizon she craved…”

      I suspect that horizon’s a point of contact with O’Keeffe for both of us.

      Those moments of gratitude you mention are interesting. I have them too. Generally, they don’t seem to be linked to anything specific but are more a sense of being on exactly the right path. It may look like a pretty weird path from others’ perspective, but who cares about that?

      Linda

  3. Beautiful post! You’ve hit on artists that I’ve always respected – their eyes were surely always working! Sometimes we can love/appreciate what’s in front of us so much that we feel as if we might burst!

    • Lisa,

      I was telling montucky last night about an experience a friend and I had in West Texas. We were driving west, just before sunset. As the sun hit the top of the buttes, they became a false horizon, and the sun simply “exploded”. Instead of simply being larger, as the sun and moon often are near the horizon, the sun filled everything – there was nowhere to look without being blinded. I couldn’t see the road, the car behind us, or even the front of my car. There was nothing but sun.

      It seemed to last forever, but of course it only was a few seconds. Still, we’re lucky we didn’t go off the road.

      I suspect that experience is somehow analogous to what artists experience from time to time. They see the world “exploded” before them, and struggle for the rest of their lives to capture that experience. I suspect carrying that vision could make such people feel as if they might burst!

      Linda

      • That is beautiful, Linda, and yes, I think you are right. Sometimes I am walking with this silly smile on my face, as I am overflowing with love/happiness, and I think, “People surely think that I am on drugs!”

        The smile, of course, is infectious!
        Heading out for the day,
        Z from a restaurant in town :)

  4. So much of art, creating it or enjoying it, is perception, isn’t it? And perhaps then the duty of the photographer is simply to accurately capture a subject and offer it to others for their perceptions.

    • montucky,

      One of the things I so enjoy about your blog is that, on the one hand, you offer us images that would do perfectly well as illustrations in a botany text or a wildflower guide. They’re clear, sharp and detailed – accurate, if you will.

      On the other hand, people who admire the qualities of your flower, tree, stream or mountain valley often head off in their own directions. Sometimes they comment on the technical aspects of the photo, sometimes they’re amazed by something they’ve never seen, and sometimes it simply triggers a half-hidden memory or association. (From orchid to hospital slippers in one easy leap!)

      That’s why I love the phrase “surplus of meaning” so much. What the photographer or other artist means to communicate is one thing. How people respond is another. Both are important – and often delightful.

      Linda

  5. I really do get an education when I read your posts. Another marvelous piece of writing to provide your readers a brief description of the thoughts of some great writers, ordinary folk, artists and so on. Loved this post.

    • Yvonne,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. We’re used to the extraordinary people among us – like these painters – being praised for their talent, perseverance, and so on. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that they weren’t only extraordinary, they were people, too. They got up in the morning, checked the weather, were happy to see the sun or rain, and in some cases petted their dogs and cats!

      It’s wonderful to have their art, but it’s also wonderful to have them remind us that life is a gift before it’s a painting. Of course we can’t force anyone to be grateful for that gift, but at least we can remind ourselves that it’s possible.

      Linda

      • I appreciate your lovely replies. They are almost as good as the actual post. Of course that might be a bit of a stretch but it’s all about you being so accessible and so human. :-)

  6. I love your comment: “In the end, it may be that artists of every sort are bound together not by canvas or manuscript, not by sonnet or score, but by their deeply personal, intensely visceral response to this gift of vision.”

    It speaks of gift and the intuitive response to this gift that is driven by an integrity of vision, self and creation. Somehow these three hold together in a work of art. I can’t always name what I like, or don’t like, in a piece of art, but I think that I can usually name what makes something not to be art; and it is a lack of this integrity.

    • Allen,

      I’ve always believed integrity is critical for excellence in any field, and you’re using the word exactly as I would. It has to do with behavior and morality, of course, but in a broader sense it implies wholeness, a consonance between word and deed – even if the “deed” is a painting or manuscript. “Do as I say and not as I do” doesn’t work very well for parenting (or governing, for that matter) and “Do as I say and not as you see” isn’t going to be of much use to an artist.

      Part of the wonder and difficulty of integrity is that it’s a quality never fully achieved – it’s a process rather than a static quality. The artist before his easel is not only developing his technique, he’s refining his vision. The writer creating a character is herself being reshaped and redefined by the act of creation.

      It’s the perfect place for another Venn diagram. Put self, vision and creation into their three little circles and right in the middle, right where they intersect – well, I suppose that’s where you get the Sistine Chapel, The Well-Tempered Clavier, or a garland of autumn leaves, pressed between sheets of waxed paper and hung on the fridge!

      Linda

      • Yes, your Venn diagram works well here, and leaves spaces where the drive for integrity falls short, something we all know well!

  7. Dear Linda, Thank you. A few years ago, I saw many of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings at The Milwaukee Art Museum. A beautiful post . . . Ellen

    • Ellen,

      How wonderful that you’ve been able to see some of her paintings. I believe one of my favorites, “Sky Above Clouds IV” is on permanent exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute now. You can see a very nice little video about it here .

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your very kind words.

      Linda

  8. I learn so much here. I remember you referring to Winslow Homer before. The image above…is it a watercolor or a photo? I’m sure it’s a watercolor, but it really begs the question.

    I first heard mention of the artist’s “light within” in reading about El Greco and viewing a video from The National Gallery of Art – Washington. I have tried to locate it for you but cannot. I remember running into it on YouTube, but I cannot find it now. Perhaps it has been removed since it was produced in the 70’s. Still, because it left such a lasting impression, I cannot imagine that it is “out of date.”

    What he did with his silvery whites, what Georgia O’Keefe did with her white light rendering her flowers real and filled with her own vision, and what Van Gogh did with his whites in “Starry Night” or “Irises” do make the images alive. What a gift of gratitude to capture the subject and connect with it leaving a delicate stamp of what it evoked in the artist.

    • Georgette,

      The first image is one of Homer’s Bermuda watercolors. The second, of the palm trees, is a photo.

      One of my favorite El Grego paintings is a more naturalistic piece called “Boy Blowing on an Ember”. It’s a beautiful example of that use of light.

      I was looking at it again today in the context of an article, and noticed a detail of El Greco’s development that had escaped me. In his earlier years he was a disciple of Titian and Tintoretto, and his first altarpiece still shows that Venetian influence. This short video mentions that process of early development and makes the point that it took some years for El Greco to find his own inimitable style.

      Your mention of “Starry Night” reminds me of one of my all-time favorites – this pen and ink drawing that preceded the painting. Sketches and drawings aren’t merely technical precursors to a finished “product”, they’re a glimpse into the creative process itself.

      There’s an exhibit of Edward Hopper’s drawings that’s just opened at the Whitney – oh, I would love to see that!

      Linda

  9. Morning Linda:

    Thank you for giving us such a lovely Sunday morning. All your pictures are a delight for our eye as well as your delicate narrative.

    We studied Winslow Homer when we were in high school in the deep green banana plantations of Changuinola. Homer brought the ocean, cobalt skies and brine into the classroom.

    Your blog post brought those delicious memories back. For that Linda, I am most grateful.

    Warm Regards,

    Omar.-

    • Omar,

      I’m experienced enough now to know that all palm trees are not identical, and that the waters and skies of the tropics have many faces. Still, I can imagine that finding an American artist representing your world so beautifully would have been quite a treat for your class.

      One of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed having visitors – no matter where I lived – is that showing them around helps me to see my world in a new way. Artists like Homer sometimes are like that – they “visit” our worlds, and help us see them in a new way.

      We have a delicious tropical day here after morning rains. The palms are fresh and glittering in the sun – I hope your day’s been as beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing your memories, and giving me another glimpse into your world.

      Linda

      • Morning Linda:

        After a week of rainy and gloomy days, the sun has returned and it’s clear and bright outside, albeit a bit hot. Today, I think we will have some rain shortly after midday.

        Have a great day with your beloved boats.

        Omar.-

  10. My favorite paragraph: ” Winslow Homer knew the experience well. As he said, “The sun will not rise or set without my notice and thanks.” Vincent Van Gogh shared Homer’s impulse toward thankfulness. “I have walked this earth for 30 years,” he said, “and out of gratitude want to leave some souvenir.” Even among the solemn philosophers there is some agreement, with Nietzsche himself declaring, “The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.”

    I’m not an artist, but I share the same feelings, thoughts, sentiments about these beautiful, vanishing Louisiana wetlands and try, sometimes feebly, to share that beauty with my readers in words. Sometimes, though, words are not enough; and where photographs fall short, artists like those you mentioned could surely interpret the reality justly.

    I will continue to express my gratitude by leaving here and there little souvenirs of words about these wetlands and the unique culture and way of life they support.

    • Bayou Woman,

      I just finished scanning through several pages of images I found by searching for “Louisiana swamps painting”. What I found was a little disheartening – garish colors, stereotypical trees, cutsie floating cabins. My own sense of things is that, at least at this point, a combination of words, photography, historical images and traditional crafts/music will better communicate the reality of your world and the importance of preserving it – not just the wetlands, but the culture that developed there and depends upon them for survival.

      There’s not a thing wrong with George Rodrigue and his Blue Dog, but there are other artists who deserve to be known. The sculptor Clyde Connell is one. I found her work a couple of years ago looking for something on O’Keeffe, and was fascinated by this:

      “Except for some traveling, Mrs. Connell spent her entire life within a 50-mile radius of Shreveport. She was striking even in old age, with white hair and a self-contained presence that sometimes drew comparisons with Georgia O’Keeffe…”

      “Like O’Keeffe, she drew inspiration from the region in which she lived. She used brown earth and red clay to color her drawings and sculptures, as well as bits of iron scrap that her son, Brian, a cotton farmer, found in his fields. She had a mystical view of nature and described her drawings as transcriptions of its music, heard on the bayou.”

      You may remember reading in the Houma paper about Ebdon Alleman from Pierre Part whose pirogue ended up in the Smithsonian. When he made that in 1948, a documentary also was made – things like that need broader distribution.And of course there are the rural Mardi Gras celebrations, the Saturday morning session at the Savoy Music Center in Eunice, and on and on.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is that perhaps artists can help place the wetlands into a larger context, and maybe help make them important to people who otherwise wouldn’t notice – sort of a “as go the wetlands, so go the Cajuns, the shrimpers, the boudin and gumbo…”

      Clearly, we need a Swamp Summit to begin sorting these issues out. If politicians can have summits, we surely can!

      Linda

      • I love the idea of a Swamp Summit, and thank you for telling me about Ms. Connell. I certainly hope she either lived on a bayou or visited one frequently.

  11. Well, Linda, I just love it when you write about art. You have such a keen eye and even more, such a deep appreciation of more than the visual, but all the bits behind it — that sense of comprehension that makes your observations so astute.

    I remember your saying once in a comment on my posts that you really loved Homer. I think it is the highest praise to say of an artist of Homer’s caliber, “It looks just like Winslow Homer painted it.” Indeed — even for the more expressionistic painters like Van Gogh — well, all I can say is that I walked a street not unlike that in Paris and it looked just like Van Gogh painted it!

    I planted morning glories this year. I figured if I could jazz up the wire fence that separates my neighbor’s yard from mine, all the better. As I did, I couldn’t help thinking of O’Keeffe and wondering if I might be trying hard to draw one of those morning glories one day this summer.

    I, too, said a quiet thank you yesterday as I walked through a beautiful herb garden just waking up for spring and summer. (Feels more like early spring!). And thank YOU for sharing this loveliness on this lovely Sunday morning!

    • jeanie,

      Do you remember when I first began thinking about this reciprocal relationship between artists and their world? It was just before your trip to Giverny. We talked about Monet – the way he planted his gardens in color patches that resembled his paintings. Or perhaps, we thought, he painted his canvases to replicate his garden!

      I like the thought of you drawing morning glories. You could title one, “Morning, Glory!” That’s what my dad used to say to me when I got up in the morning, and it always seemed so cheerful. By the time yours bloom, you should be feeling even better and be even closer to that time when YOU can decide what to do with the whole of your day! It does sound delicious, and I have a feeling your creativity is going to come back with a surge.

      We’re well past spring now, and heading directly into summer heat (and humidity – oh, joy). Still, there’s much to be thankful for, including air conditioning, watermelons, patches of mint, museums with free days, French pastries and friends who can say without any apparent thought, “Oh, really, any pate’ choux will work..” ;)

      Linda

  12. What joy to read about art this Sunday morning… er, afternoon. I see noon has sneaked up on me!

    Some of my favorite artists are Homer (The Gulf Stream), O’Keefe (cow skulls and adobe shadows) and Van Gogh (just about all of them!). Adam’s photos are favorites, too (Moon and Half Dome). I’ve always had a thing for B&W.

    Your entry suddenly made me think of Sister Wendy and her observations about art and artists, though her forte was religious art.

    • Gué,

      Yes, and now the evening has sneaked up, too. Honestly – I’m almost ready to start quoting Grandma’s line about “The faster I go, the behinder I get”.

      I’m fond of O’Keeffe’s flowers, especially the jimson, poppies and morning glories, but if I were forced into a choice, I think I’d take her shells, skulls and trees, especially this Lawrence Tree. As someone who’s done her share of sleeping out under a tree, I think you’ll get a kick out of the discussion of how to “see” this one.

      I hadn’t thought about Sister Wendy in ages. I’ve only seen her on YouTube, but she can be funny and incisive. That’s part of the reason the evening came upon me so quickly – a little too much Sister Wendy-watching.

      Linda

      • My grandmother used to quote a Russian proverb that’s the flip side of the one you mentioned. The Russian translates as “The slower you go, the farther you get.”

        • I just caught a glimpse of today’s caterpillar, a rather nice example of a slow-goer. Whether it got farther than it expected, I can’t say. It’s interesting to think about what a caterpillar-in-a-rush might look like.

          • This one was completely still when I met it, but all my close attention eventually caused it to pulsate fairly quickly, at least for a caterpillar.

  13. Winslow Homer’s comment that “The sun will not rise or set without my notice and thanks” reminds me of something that Thoreau wrote: “For many years I was self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms, and did my duty faithfully….”

    An inner compulsion seems to drive such people to create—one in the visual arts, the other in writing, for these two—but where that compulsion comes from is a mystery. As far as I can tell, most people don’t feel compelled to create, although the profusion of blogs in the last decade may belie what I just said.

    • Steve,

      I’ve always enjoyed that quotation from Thoreau. I thought this morning I might have the chance to inspect a rain-storm, but no such luck. Instead, I inspected a clearing sky and a pretty sunset.

      As for the compulsion to create, I’ve been thinking about how often I’ve seen its results in my own life. I have a beautiful oak blanket chest made by my grandfather from a dining table that became too small as the family grew. The chest holds a collection of sheets and pillowcases decorated with lace and crocheted trim made by great-aunts, aunts and my grandmother. Wood-turning, quilting, embroidery, calligraphy, hand-made Christmas cards – there was a whole world of creativity around us that slowly has disappeared.

      It’s an idle thought, but I wonder now and then if we’ve come to associate creativity primarily with the group of people we call “artists”, while the rest of us are assumed to be utterly bland, bored and happy with mass-produced gewgaws and must-see tv. I’d hope not, but some days it seems so. At least, the merchandisers seem to think so.

      As for blogging, it’s pretty clearly a phenomenon that mimics life in general. There are creative bloggers, distinctly non-creative bloggers, and everything in between. Still, the internet is making a difference. There’s Etsy for the crafters, MySpace and YouTube for musicians, and Twitter for the gossips and purveyors of bad information. What’s not to like? ;-)

      Linda

  14. I like the idea that appreciation and gratitude are marks of an artistic soul! There has to be some distinction between those who see and feel things deeply — and appreciate them on an intimate level — and those who see and move on. I’ve long been aware of that and wondered why, usually chalking it up to the differences in people.

    Perhaps too often we take for granted the gifts we’re given. Those of us who write, for example, see a blank page as an opportunity, while those who don’t see it and tremble. We might be “equal” in the eyes of God and the law, but we’re so very unique, aren’t we? Some will take their gift and squirrel it away, afraid to nurture and display it, while others labor long to perfect just the right word, just the right brushstroke, to convey what they’re feeling.

    Thank you for another beautiful essay. I never studied art much and sadly, do good just to draw stick people, so I appreciate and applaud those like Georgia who can take a blank canvas and make something glorious!

    • Debbie,

      The high point of my artistic career probably was the squirrel I carved from a bar of ivory soap in grade school. But I’ll bet if I gave it another try, I’d do better. It’s not that I’ve taken art classes or practiced my techniques – it’s that I lived with a squirrel as a pet for eight years.

      Annie Dillard describes that kind of change well when she says,”The lover can see, and the knowledgeable”. I know squirrels in a different way because of my relationship with one and yes, I do love them. So, my vision of them is different.

      One thing’s for sure – “seeing” is a skill that can be nurtured and developed. Summer’s coming, and across the country there will be kids galore whining,”there’s nothing to do”. Of course there’s plenty to do – they just don’t see it. They experience boredom because they’re insensitive to the world around them. When someone’s bored, the best thing we can do isn’t to give them something to do, it’s to help them begin seeing life in a new way.

      You surely are right that each of us is unique, with out own gifts and talents. And might I remind you that jewelry-making’s an art, too. An eye for color and design, knowledge of materials, technical skill – all of that adds up to an artistic endeavor. So don’t sell yourself short!

      Linda

  15. Oh, and isn’t this one of the best times of year to open our eyes, but I also say that when autumn paints everything with color and again when winter’s bare branches reach for the sky.

    Van Gogh and O’Keeffe are two of my favorites. I do believe the mood of a piece is what moves me, and how that is achieved is a mystery to me. I enjoyed how you delved into how artists think. That’s something I’ve wondered about. I believe I see them as people who see things in a different way than the rest of us do. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s as if they see things we mere mortals miss. Then they put it in their art, and only then do the rest of us see it. I know. Sounds a little crazy.

    • Bella Rum,

      I don’t think it’s crazy at all. You’ve reminded me of another wonderful Annie Dillard story. She says, “I once spent a full three minutes looking at a bullfrog that was so unexpectedly large I couldn’t see it, even though a dozen enthusiastic campers were shouting directions. Finally I asked, “What color am I looking for?” and a fellow said, “Green.” When at last I picked out the frog, I saw what painters are up against. The thing wasn’t green at all, but the color of wet hickory bark.”

      The first time I saw an alligator in the wild I had the same sort of experience. I was over at Lake Martin in Louisiana. I saw at least fifteen cars and trucks pulled to the side of the road, so of course I did the same. I walked over and asked, “What’re you looking at?” A guy said, “Over there. That mama gator and her babies.” I tell you, it took FOREVER for me to find them – mama half-submerged and the babies in a row on her back.

      The fellow said there were three others close by. I couldn’t see them. He said, “Don’t look for an alligator. Look for what seems different – ripples, or dark patches in the water. Let your eye just run down the canal.” I practiced that some, and found them. I practiced some more, and the last time I went to the wildlife refuge, I saw alligators galore – big ones, little ones, sleepy ones, sneaky ones. That guy with the F250 was an alligator artist, and he’d taught me to see them.

      Now, that sounds crazy.

      Linda

  16. Another well thought out piece, Linda. I’ve often thought about the areas that appeal to writers and artists. The central coast of California around Big Sur, Carmel and Monterrey being one; northern New Mexico with Taos and Santa Fe being another. I’ve hung out in both areas and loved them. I can see how they inspire artists.

    I’ve photographed Datura (Jimson Weed) many times. I get O’Keeffe’s fascination with it. It is a beautiful, and I might add, deadly plant. I’ve also visited O’Keeffe’s home in Northern New Mexico. You can sense the artist in the home. There is no doubt in my mind that artists take inspiration from where they live. Neither is there any doubt that they like to live in beautiful places. Why not? –Curt

    • Curt,

      Having lived in California and spent time in New Mexico, I understand the appeal. Beautiful places abound in both states. Some are well-publicized and famous while others, like your favorite camping spots in Northern California, are a little more off the beaten path. They’re no less inspiring.

      I certainly agree that artists can take inspiration from their surroundings, but a beautiful place isn’t necessary for creation. Nor does it guarantee creativity! I love Abiquiú, but I can guarantee you that moving there wouldn’t turn me into even the faintest shadow of O’Keeffe, any more than a move to Monterey would turn me into Steinbeck.

      Thinking about place and creativity, I walked into another room to look at my most treasured piece of art from LIberia. It’s a carving done by a leper who lived at Ganta. It isn’t simply “good”, a better example of the usual offerings. It’s of a different order entirely, lively, appealing and compelling to the eye. The Ganta leper colony’s about as far removed from the tony artists’ colonies of this country as you can get. And yet, I have my own bit of evidence that even under those circumstances true art can be produced.

      Why not live in a beautiful place? Well, sometimes circumstances make that impossible. On the other hand, seen through an artist’s eye, maybe every place has beauty to offer.

      Linda

      • No argument with that, Linda. BTW, I too have a carving from the leper colony in Ganta. Went to George’s hut and bought it from him. I understand that Duke is planning to have a show of the Ganta work in 2015. They will be using a photo of George that I took. Do you have any photos of the Ganta colony and carvers? –Curt

        • I don’t. Somewhere I have a photo of a couple of fellows making chairs, and one general shot of the area, but that’s all. There are some Ganta photos at Liberia 77 that include at least one of a carver. There’s a nice photo of the Harleys, too. Obviously, their presence still was palpable when I was there.

          I had no idea of his relationship with Duke, or that his papers are there. I see the collection’s open. My goodness – wouldn’t it be wonderful to spend a few days with those documents?

          I was going to say something about not believing the places I’ve been and the things that I’ve seen – and that reminded me of the wonderful Burning Man meets Dr. Seuss video.. I still haven’t read your Burning Man posts – it’s on the to-do list.

          • Burning Man is definitely worth the trip to Nevada, Linda. Check out the Burning Man Art on my blog… and the mutant vehicles are out of this world. –Curt

  17. New Mexico, where O’Keefe lived is right next door, so to speak. In the 1950’s, my dad attended a church conference at Ghost Ranch which is north of Abiquiu. They saw her car where she was out painting one morning. She would have been in her 70’s at the time.

    Artists, particularly painters, often have an instinctive feeling for the zeitgeist or spirit of place. They respond to the essence of the landscape. Winslow Homer is one of my favorites too. I love Homer’s Maine pictures of people on the headlands. His treatment of light reminds me of Andrew Wyeth, who is another big favorite. Van Gogh was very affected by the landscape around Arles and the play of light. His palette changed markedly, from somber colors to brighter ones after he went there.

    Art is life filtered through the lens of the artist’s mind. Van Gogh’s writhing brush strokes and vivid swirling colors make me wonder how much of his technique had to do with his artistic vision and how much was related to his schizophrenia.

    • WOL,

      What a neat experience for your dad! I haven’t peeked into the Ghost Ranch site in forever, so I went over to look. They have two workshops coming up that would be wonderful fun – one on the art of letter writing, and a banjo camp. Better I should save my money, set up a playlist and write a couple of letters right here.

      Wouldn’t it be something to watch one of these artists paint? It’s magical enough for me to watch the sidewalk artists in Galveston – even the ones who stick to portraiture and cartooning. I like your description of art as life filtered through the lens of the artist’s mind. That’s one point where it seems to me that photography and painting meet – no matter how realistic the photo, no matter how representational the painting, there are a hundred decisions – or more – that go into the final product. Those decisions belong to the artist – and to no one else.

      And if little “quirks” in the mind influence that final product, as with Van Gogh? So be it. Actually, even setting aside schizophrenia or other mental disorders, we all have our quirks. I keep thinking about that fellow who’s spent his life covering museum floors with pollen. I’d love to spend a couple of hours with him, just to ask some questions!

      Linda

  18. Again your writing stirs up so much emotion in me. I come from a very artistic family. (Dad’s mother, Mom’s father, my cousin and my own mother and brother) I loved art because of these very people in my life. I wanted so much to emulate them, not so much in style, but in my efforts to the craft.

    One day in our art session in 6th grade I set out to recreate the mountains outside our classroom window. I wanted to find and capture the outlines of the peaks and foothills. I wanted that outline to be perfect. I thought I had done well! I got home and mom took one look at it and told me it was sloppy work, unfinished, and that I could do better, to model my work after my grandparents, etc. I know how Georgia O’Keeffe felt when…

    “…Another painted over her work, to show her how the Impressionists did trees. She had not before heard how the Impressionists did trees, and she did not much care.”

    In my case, my mother painted over my heart and I never really went on after that. Thankfully, I am surrounded by good friends who encourage me to try. Lisa at Playamart is one, you are another. Each of you is a master at your given craft and you both encourage me to pursue my interests. Writing and art. I may not end up famous, nor is it my intention, but at least I have returned to what I love and enjoy. The emotion and freedom to pursue these avenues means more to my heart than the product.

    Thank you, Linda.
    (Lisa is giving weekly lessons online and I will attempt them. I am terrified to go public with my scratchings onto paper, but I have promised myself to do it!) ;)

    • Lynda,

      It’s taken me a bit of time to respond because your description of your experience was so painful – and one I also experienced. To hear you say, “my mother painted over my heart” is unbearably sad, and yet it’s a perfect description of many people’s experience.

      My own mother had other ways of doing what your mother did. While never a critic of my art pieces, she was pretty committed to excellence generally and especially to good grades. If I got a B, it surely could have been an A. Did I get an A? Good – but why not an A+? Why not the top of the class? And so on. Needless to say, there was a day of accounting that arrived – one that in retrospect is a little shameful, a little painful and a whole lot hilarious. (Never underestimate the power of passive-aggression!) But those years left their marks.

      Suffice it to say Flannery O’Connor’s mother and mine could have talked for hours. For mom, if you didn’t get paid in $$$, it didn’t have value. And, to the day she died, she resented the time I spent writing, calling it “playing with that damned computer”. When I finally got some pieces published in magazines, I bought myself a few years of peace. Why publish? “To keep your mother happy” isnt the worst reason in the world. ;)

      But yes – the freedom to pursue our vision, to enjoy the creative process for its own sake, to explore the world around us and communicate our enjoyment of it to others – that’s not the worst reward in the world.

      I didn’t realize Lisa’s doing an online course. My immediate impulse is to jump in with you, just for the fun of it. But words are my world now. I’ll just stay on the sidelines and cheer you on, along with the others. It will be interesting to see how things go.

      What I really expect is that most of your creative energy’s going to be expended in accomplishing The Great Move – at least for a time. There are so many wonderful decisions to be made, so much to enjoy. I love the thought that you’re even taking plants along with you, to create those new gardens!

      Linda

      • Thank you, Linda. You may be correct about the artistic endeavors for the moment, but I want to give it my best shot. A kind of release activity for at the end of the day. The biggest time eater is going to be all the repairs and refurbishing that need to be done on the house.

        • Oh, I wasn’t suggesting you’d wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) have time or energy for the drawing. You may find that creative energy in one realm spills over into another and you’re more creative than ever. I just was thinking – wouldn’t it be cool to have drawings of the progress on the house & land? ;-)

          • Spark!

  19. What a brilliant essay…. The ever-present need to be grateful for this beautiful world of ours would, I truly believe, alleviate so much pain and suffering.

    “Be clearly aware of the stars and infinity on high. Then life seems almost enchanted after all.” -van Gogh

    • FeyGirl,

      The bottom line is that life itself is a gift. The alligator and the palmetto, the bacon and eggs, the cheese and the wine, the wind and the water, the camera and the car – each in their own way is a gift to us. Receiving them gratefully, rejoicing in them and using them responsibly to create new visions for others would pretty much fill up any life, I’d think!

      And dear Van Gogh – telling us both with his words and his paintings to look to the stars. I think he must have been very grateful, indeed, for those starry, starry nights.

      Linda

      • I hate to admit this, but I never knew that Don McLean’s song, that we all knew back then as Starry Starry Night, was about Vincent. Not until this very moment! :shock: Thank you for the enlightenment.

  20. Linda, I love reading about art and artists, so I especially enjoyed this post. I’ve always been drawn to O’Keeffe’s work and seek out her paintings in museums around the country. I also once visited her house, a privilege. I am not as familiar with Homer’s works.

    I am thinking about another project for my blog, which might involve Van Gogh. Still percolating the idea.

    I feel fortunate to live in Seattle with its gray skies because I find it much more difficult to get good photos in sunshine. Your readers share such interesting comments. Always so much to think about after reading one of your posts.

    • Rosemary,

      I’d been familiar with Van Gogh’s more “famous” paintings, like the starry night series, but it took a visiting exhibit of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists from the National Gallery for me to gain a deeper appreciation of his work.

      The exhibit included this self-portrait, which I’d seen reproduced. Reproductions simply don’t convey the force of the painting, which the exhibit catalogue described as having been produced in a single day.

      If you do happen to engage in another blog project, I’ll be delighted. Following along as you explored your moon shell was an extraordinary experience.

      I’m glad for the confirmation about the difficulties sunshine presents for photography. On a recent Saturday trip, the day was perfect – not a cloud, blue sky, cool and dry. But the midday photos taken outdoors weren’t very satisfactory. In fact, I’m going to make the trip again, just to try for some better photos.

      Linda

  21. What a thoughtful essay. I’ve never appreciated before the connection between gratitude and creativity – very interesting. This is a very small survey but I can certainly say there has been an unleashing of creativity in me since I became more grateful – I’m just constantly astonished at how beautiful the world is :)

    I love Georgia O’Keefe’s work but am not familiar with Homer’s. Good water colours are just like magic – a true transformation. Well, actually any kind of painting really…

    • thinkingcowgirl,

      For some reason your comment reminded me of one of Winnie-the-Pooh’s friends, Piglet. He was the one who noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude!

      Don’t you think that gratitude engenders creativity because it opens us up? When I think of the truly ungrateful people I’ve known, I think of them as pinched up, tightly wound, all pursed lips and quick judgments. Often, they’re not even capable of receiving a gift, let alone being grateful for it.

      In so many ways we’re just like that little girl with the leaves. You’re not clutching a bundle of leaves, but you’re certainly making something no one every has seen with your new place, and the cows, and the history of it all. It’s in the process of true transformation, too.

      Linda

  22. Came back assuming I’d be over the “Commenter’s Block”. No joy there though.
    Always enjoy anything van Gogh and the new to me water color depictions make a place for themselves.
    “This is my gift to you. I am giving you the vision. Now , the responsibility to carry it forward is yours.”
    Willco as best I can.

    • Ken,

      Now, there’s a new one – “commenter’s block”! That makes me smile. Did you come across the phrase elsewhere, or did you create it yourself? It’s one of those phrases that wouldn’t have made any sense five years ago – yet another sign of this new age we’re living in.

      Actually, I wish some of the commenters on a few of the sites I pass through would suffer a little more often from commenters’ block. I try to refrain from reading the comments on news sites and such. Snark is one art form I’d rather avoid.

      Van Gogh and Winslow Homer are great, but I’ve gotten introduced to several Canadian artists over the past year whose work I really like. Here’s one of them. His work is another great example of the way geography and vision can interact to produce some beautiful images!

      Linda

  23. Beautiful examples of artists with great vision, Linda. I appreciate their quotes about sharing their insights, their impressions of the world — and these expressions of gratitude. I had no idea.

    I do love Georgia O’Keeffe’s floral pieces. They are so vibrant, even the ones that are pale. One of my favorites is the White Rose with Larkspur, but I’m entering a vermillion phase and am loving her poppies.

    • nikkipolani,

      I didn’t know White Rose with Larkspur. It’s beautiful, and I see it’s also a favorite among the cross-stitching and needlepoint crowd. I would think that reproducing such a piece would be an interesting way to enter the world of the artist.

      I’m a great fan of poppies myself. A friend – now gone for many years – left me this painting of poppies that she did in the 70s. Her true love was roses, though. She gave me some yellow ones for my birthday one year, done with a palette knife.

      I’ve no doubt you feel the same gratitude as you wander among your garden roses as I do when I admire the ones on my walls. Experiencing the gratitude is as much a gift as anything.

      Linda

      • Oh, those are so lovely, Linda! How wonderful to have such gifts in your home.

        Replicating Georgia O’Keeffe with thread?! Oh my.

  24. “How much of an artist’s talent is in his ability to create and how much lies in his ability to record – not just the obvious visuals but also the mood and the energy of the subject? “

    Thanks for this wonderfully rich post, Linda. As a lifelong lover of art without any ability to paint or draw, I just loved the above quote which sums up for me what a really good artist does who is able to touch one’s soul….

    • Anne,

      Like you, I’m not going to be the one holding the paintbrush or pencil, but I love to explore and admire the work of those who can do with with skill and enthusiasm. Or even just enthusiasm, for all that.

      And isn’t it so? Some pieces have life and vibrancy. Others we describe as “flat”, or “lifeless”. It’s hard to say what it is that makes the difference, but that difference is palpable, mysterious and intriguing. I suppose the same thing is true of any of the arts. You know as well as I do the experience of picking up a book and by page fifteen or fifty just quietly laying it aside. It’s that mysterious “something” that’s lacking.

      Figuring out what that “something” is and learning how to add it is the trick! Or maybe it can’t be learned. It surely is an interesting question to ponder.

      Linda

  25. A wonderful essay! I definitely identified with the observation that when you visit a place, especially a foreign or unfamiliar place, you’ll suddenly get the context and inspiration to understand art seen previously which seemed uncommonly evocative. It does not devalue the art or the photography to realize that the natural God-given canvas is glorious. The artist lets us see through their unique lens and their gift of interpretation. As a viewer it is wonderful to be grateful for both!

    Someone mentioned Ansel Adams being ‘more real than reality itself’. He was certainly a bit irreverent at times and one of my favourite things he said was that “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” I heard that quote first quite a few years ago at a seminar by this guy… http://www.clydebutcher.com . Clyde Butcher specializes in fine art black and white photography of the Everglades makes huge wet lab prints. So dodging and burning is his stock and trade as he prepares his gift of interpretation.

    Art inspires our view and our art; we have much to be grateful for…including your art which is interpretation via the pen rather than the brush!

    • Judy,

      Context is everything, whether we’re learning to appreciate art, trying to understand another human being or learning a new skill. Even with quotations, we often speak of words being “taken out of context” – there, at least, we understand that complications and misunderstanding can arise if poor old context is ignored.

      I do like that quotation from Adams. It’s so – insouciant, casual, almost dismissive of poor old God, who apparently hasn’t quite gotten with the program!

      Thanks for the link to Clyde Butcher. There are so many artists doing so much wonderful work – some famous, some not, some known by nearly everyone and some known only by their neighbors. It doesn’t matter – it’s the creativity that counts, the enjoyment and the gratitude.

      Linda

      • I think for some folks, like maybe politicians with agenda, context gets in the way …or maybe not! After all what’s a little distortion here and there!!

        Yeah Adams must have been quite a character…I tend to enjoy the irreverent sorts but I think Adams was quite reverent and awed by the power and texture of natural spaces!!

  26. So much to think about here in this inspiring post, Linda. A must read for anyone in the arts area.

    • Andrew,

      I can’t believe that through all of this – the writing, re-reading, commenting – I’ve missed bringing up those other great analysts of the relationship of gratitude and art. That would be – uh, yes – ABBA. I enjoy some of their music more than the rest, but I’ve always liked “Thank You For the Music”. Honestly, it seems as simple and direct an expression of what I was trying to say here as there could be.

      Maybe you’ll enjoy it, too. Thinking’s ok, but sometimes singing is better!

      Linda


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