an honor, an excerpt, my husband's clay

Thursday, December 1, 2016

I struggle, perhaps I always will, with striking the right balance. How much do we talk about ourselves out here? How much do we turn our attention to others? What does a small personal moment mean against the backdrop of grave concerns or else-where suffering?

I don't have the answers.

But here, today, is this:

This Is the Story of You, my young adult novel about the consequences of a monster storm, was named to the 2017 TAYSHAS Reading List today, and I could not be more grateful on behalf of this quiet book that means to much to me. Thank you, TAYSHAS, and thank you, Taylor Norman of Chronicle Books, who is so consistently kind to me. The link to the full list is here.

An excerpt from Nest. Flight. Sky., a Shebooks memoir about the loss of my mother, appears on the beautiful literary site, The Woven Tale Press, today. Woven Tale is like a book you want to read—beautiful considered and laid out. That link is here.

Finally, my husband's work will be featured in a major exhibition that opens tomorrow. This international show, Craft Forms, has its home at the Wayne Art Center, and tomorrow night I'll abandon my ordinary, often wrinkled, not exactly glamorous garb for a dress and heels to help celebrate the opening night. The link to my husband's work is here.

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Alone in a Hurricane? Video responses to gorgeous questions inspired by the storms of now and THIS IS THE STORY OF YOU

Thursday, November 24, 2016


On this Thanksgiving Day, I have family, friends, earth, and sky, books and those who read them, stories and those who inspire them to be deeply grateful for. I have the eight dishes I'm making for our family of three, and the graciousness of our neighbors, with whom we will share dessert.

And I have Christine Alderman to thank for questions that forced me to go deep into my novel—This Is the Story of You—to find lessons for right now. What are the responsible responses to our times? What is the place of hope and empathy in a country fractured by opposing points of view, distrust, and fear?

Here, on Book Club Advisor, those questions and my attempts at answers can be found. The lighting in my little office was odd, but maybe that's because I'm a little odd. So please forgive all that blue tint and think, with me, about the power of empathy.

Christine, thank you. For everything.

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in the struggle of right now, search for beauty: MOMENTS OF SEEING, Katrina Kenison

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

In the struggle of right now, as I work to understand what I might do to strengthen fractured communities and identify (and work toward) hope, I make room, as well, for beauty.

I sit with a neighbor I love and talk.

I listen to the students who inspire.

I look for the sun when it rises and the sun when it falls.

I prepare my home for the return of my son.

I celebrate the news, and the dreams, of friends.

Here beside me as I type sits Moments of Being: Reflections from an Ordinary Life, a collection of essays from Katrina Kenison. You know Katrina because you read her hugely popular blog, or because you have read her three books (Mitten Strings for God, The Gift on an Ordinary Day, Magical Journey), or because you have met her in your travels as a student or a friend.

You know Katrina.

When Katrina decided to assemble these—shall we call them letters? yes, letters—first written to readers on her blog, she chose to build a book that is as physically beautiful as it is soul leavening. Gorgeous paper. Beautiful spine. Careful typesetting. It's all Katrina, through and through, in a book that asks us to stop, to see, and to appreciate. Here, for example, is Katrina reflecting on a party she threw in her peaceful home:

There was a moment, a kind of Mrs. Dalloway moment, when I just stopped, stood stock-still, and looked around at the loveliness of the scene. The men were in the kitchen drinking beer. The women were outside, chatting. The boys were juggling—a skill they all learned together in sixth and seventh grade and suddenly, spontaneously, decided to revive at ages seventeen and eighteen. Clubs flew through the air. A fiercely competitive badminton game was in progress. A group of girls sat at the picnic table, deep in conversation....

Today, I promised myself this: More time for fun. More spur of the moment parties, before it's too late and the younger generation is up and out and gone for good. More fires outside, more s'mores, more reasons to celebrate the joy of being alive, of raising children to young adulthood, of spending time with those young adults—who, after all, are still learning from us, each and every day, what it means to live a good life.
We have a responsibility, this Thanksgiving, to love out loud, to yield the floor, to listen. We have a responsibility to look for and find beauty, because that will strengthen us, that will enliven us, that will help us find not just hope but a right path forward.

There is beauty in Katrina's way of seeing, her way of being. You can order her book directly here.



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language creeps back in

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

In the early days of November, at dawn, I walked along the sea.

I had been away from myself for a very long time. Anxious about the world, saddened by unkindness and untruthfulness of both the personal and political sort, not at all certain whether I would ever again find joy in many of the things that I love most.

I'm still anxious. I'm still saddened. But I cannot remain, I realize at last, inside this held breath, this paralysis. I'm no good to anyone if I'm no good within myself.

And so I again am taking refuge inside story. I am returning, in my imagination and in fact, to a young woman I came to know last spring—to someone whose dignity, voice, and absolute compassion deeply heartened me.

I will wake up thinking about her. I will write for her, perhaps just a sentence every day. I will move forward and again forward because her story must be told, and because I know how to do that telling now, and because language creeps back in.

I need the language I had lost to live in this world, to make a difference.

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we read to understand what it is to be another

Saturday, November 12, 2016



I recently wrote of my time, this past Tuesday, at Conestoga High School, where I met with teachers and administrators during a district-wide Artistry of Teaching program.

I entered my teaching classroom early, as I tend to do. The room, shared by teachers of English, was perfectly fringed with books. The walls were lined with lists of favorite books, quotes from favorite books, evidence of conversations being had about Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award finalists, banned books, classic books, new YA titles.

I was moved, deeply moved, by this shared library—this proof of deep, border-smashing literacy among the young, as encouraged by the not-as-young. We read to find out. We read to know. We read to feel. We read to understand what it is to be another.

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bridges and not walls

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Yesterday I participated in a gorgeously-rendered Artistry of Teaching program for the T/E School District. Walked the hallways of my son's old high school. Saw again some of his favorite teachers and remembered why I loved them. Sat briefly at lunch with the great artist/writer Judy Schachner. Stood among teachers and thought out loud about how memoir breaks down walls, opens lives, provides a place of refuge—and might be taught.

The world was about to change, dramatically change. My heart was folded up inside my chest. I kept talking about bridges, about true stories as solace, about the yield that comes with trust. The teachers wrote sideways, from fiction to truth. They wrote of loved places, first memories, extruded and inverted details. They wrote. We talked. We hoped out loud.

The Artistry of Teaching program was an act of faith. It was a demonstration of our commitment to the children who come next. The power and the promise of them. The things they yet will teach us about goodness and grace, community and resilience, bridges and not walls.




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an interview with the old memoirist; Cape May in November

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The thing about the sea is that it's theater. Dawn and the people gather, waiting for the break of sun. Dusk and the people return, their friends, or memories, near.

All eyes on the horizon. All bets on the sun.

This past week, in Cape May, New Jersey, there was weather, there was light. The dolphins traveled in pods. The birds sliced silhouettes. The hours changed. Nine memoirists had joined us for our second Juncture memoir workshop, and in between the exhilaration of their work, their metamorphosis, and our conversation in an old painted lady, I traveled to the beach, alone.

While we were gone, a two-part essay/interview about my memoir-teaching work and book (Handling the Truth) appeared in the November issue of The Woven Tale Press. (Part 1. Part 2.) I have Richard Gilbert to thank for the intensely intelligent appraisal of Handling, and for the questions, which moved and engaged me.

Thank you, Woven Tale, Richard, Sandra, and Angelica.

Thank you, Sea Changers.


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pondering private lives lived out in public places, and a new memoir workshop at Longwood Gardens

Sunday, October 30, 2016


Today I share news of an upcoming one-day memoir workshop, to be conducted next October 15, 2017 at Longwood Gardens. Information is available here. Sign-ups begin in a week. Class size is limited. I'm thinking we all could use a turn in a beautiful place. I know I could.

Meanwhile, in this hard right now, when violent forces swirl, afflict, threaten, when words (abused, thwarted, erased of meaning) take on a life of their own, I have been pondering democracy and private lives lived out in public places. I wrote about the dark of that and the possible light in that for today's Philadelphia Inquirer, a story that can be found here. I centered my search for meaning in a famous Philadelphia square.


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all ready for the sea (Juncture Workshops)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

What a time it has been. What lessons still rush in, at any age.

In the deep mist and midst, we prepare for our nine writers, soon to join us by the sea for the second Juncture Memoir Workshop. I have read their beautiful early essays. I have learned about their hopes as writers. I have added Springsteen and White and a Nest to a reading list, transformed assignments, reassigned hours of the day, and now we look ahead to waves and weather and community, eager for all the good that will come.

And good shall come.
 

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lock and key

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Autumn, it seems, is finally setting in around here. The breeze carries a chill. The leaves are color. My son is home, for a few essential days. He comes by when I am standing here. A kiss on the cheek. Hey, Mom.

How hard it is to anticipate how much we'll miss our children when they are grown up and mostly gone.

But today, this Sunday morning, everything I need is right within reach—my husband, my son, our small home. We'll eat cookies, take a walk, watch a movie, talk—and that is all, because that is all we need.

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the glories of Tulsa (and Nimrod): a photo diary

Monday, October 17, 2016













I arrived home just after midnight.

I still had visions of Tulsa in my head.

A Nimrod conference expertly curated and managed by Eilis O'Neal, on a very pretty University of Tulsa campus. A group reading with Chloe Honum, Sherry Thomas, Brenna Yovanoff, Will Thomas, and Toni Jensen that will always resonate as warm, real, affirming, proof that no one genre corners excellence, that great writing is great writing, period. A chance to work with the rising memoirists of Tulsa, to sit in the audience of Robin Coste Lewis and Angela Flournoy, to hear the winners of the Nimrod contests (my friend Ruth Knafo Setton, Chad B. Anderson, Markham Johnson, and Bryce Emley ) read from their chosen work. A most extraordinary gathering at a generous and intrinsically fascinating home. A delicious (that will now always be her word) conversation with Poet Laureate and long-time Nimrod editor and champion Fran Ringold. A chance to talk to the very wonderful Jeff Martin of Booksmart Tulsa, whose organization ignites readers nearly once each week as it brings in authors like Stephen King, Hisham Matar, Brando Skyhorse, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jonathan Lethem, Ransom Riggs, James Gleick, Geoff Dyer, Stewart O'Nan, Adam Haslett and, yes, I know you were waiting for it: Michael Ondaatje. A Sunday morning spent with my friend Katherine, and her four-month old twins.

In between, the walking. Into the urban streets of Tulsa, early morning, where I saw the proud Art Deco, the proliferating churches, an old Sunoco sign dangling from a top-floor of a brick building. Over the bridge—with Ruth and then alone and then with Katherine—to stand beside the minor league ball park, to watch a U-Haul truck spin in the sky, to walk among the food trucks (Mexican street tacos, jumbo corn dogs, garlic fries, spicy pickles, grilled bacon fluffernutter), to find the Blue Dome, to imagine the streets as poet Markham Johnson encouraged us to imagine many years ago, in the wake of a devastating race riot, to recall the iconic lore of Route 66 (and indeed, I bought the Springsteen memoir on my way home).

"I Believe in Good People," a sign in a closed store read.

I believe in Tulsa.

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celebrating my husband's most-excellent pottery news (Craft Forms)

Friday, October 14, 2016

A few weeks ago we got the stupendous news that my husband's work had been juried into Craft Forms 2016, an internationally recognized premiere contemporary craft exhibition showcased at the Wayne Art Center from December 3, 2016 through January 28, 2017.

This year's juror is Stefano Catalani, Curator of Art, Craft & Design at the Bellevue Museum, who will be here to lecture on the chosen works on December 3rd, at the Wayne Art Center.

I am infinitely proud of William Sulit, this husband of mine, who disappears for many hours of many days into the basement to create sui generis work with extraordinary care. His work has sold well at Show of Hands in Philadelphia, where the gallery owner extended Bill's solo show an additional two months and has now maintained a dozen pieces for the shop. Bill's work will again be exhibited at Jam Gallery, in Malvern, PA, this November.

And this selection into this international show represents yet another turning point in Bill's clay career. I married an artist, through and through, and nothing makes me happier than to see his work make its way into the world.

I'm off to Oklahoma to teach memoir (among other things) at the Nimrod Conference (and to see my beautiful Katherine and her twin babies). I'll be back next week with news on what I learned while away (and my thoughts on the extraordinary National Book Award finalist The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy, with whom I'll share a Saturday panel).

All best to all of you in the meantime.

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loneliness does not mean one has failed (Olivia Laing, The Lonely City)

Monday, October 10, 2016

I have carried Olivia Laing's The Lonely City from place to place this past month. Laing is a thrilling writer. A form breaker. A true, adult, expansive thinker. In Lonely she weaves together her personal story with the lives of Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and others.

I'm going to be writing about this book in the next issue of Juncture Notes, so no need to say much more about it here. For today, I simply want to quote from the end. Here Laing is speaking about the healing power of art. She holds in her hands the works that others have made. She finds, in them, necessary connection. We live at a time of jarring national discourse, social media degradations, easy, anonymous strikes.

But art speaks of and for the honestly questing self. It speaks not just for the artist but to those seeking proof that their own yearning is neither aberrative nor, somehow, wrong. Loneliness is human. It binds us to each other.

When I came to New York I was in pieces, and though it sounds perverse, the way I recovered a sense of wholeness was not by meeting someone or by falling in love, but rather by handling the things that other people had made, slowly absorbing by way of this contact the fact that loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive.

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books and mud: remembering the flooding of the Arno (and One Thing Stolen)

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Oh, bless that Taylor Norman of Chronicle Books, forever uplifting, forever near. Her email of yesterday shared this news that the 50th anniversary of the terrible flooding of Arno will be honored in San Francisco's own American Bookbinders Museum.

This was the natural and cultural catastrophe that inspired my novel One Thing Stolen (Chronicle Books). This forever-proximate possibility of culture (and the art of the mind) being lost to forces beyond anyone's control.



As Matthew barrels down on this earth, as natural disasters hovers, as we keep looking for more credible ways to feel secure, this story of the Arno spilling into and across a great city, into the rooms of great museums, into the basements of churches, into homes and shops is pressingly relevant. This story of those Mud Angels who brought their wings to the resurrection of that place still matters.

We depend on one another to see each other through. To dig down into the muck and salvage beauty.

My praise, then, to the American Bookbinders Museum. And my thanks to Taylor, for letting me know.

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brilliant first draft? hardly.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

I write a first draft, but it isn't good. Plank, by plank, I take it apart. A new prologue helps me see what the book might be; it gives me a sail and a chart. A shift in tone pushes me to go more real, less arch. A shift in tone places into question every single anecdote and scene.

I stand at my desk. I plop into my rocker. I sprawl on the couch. I sigh.

I have no business being a writer, being a teacher, I'm giving this whole thing up, say I.

Maybe others write a brilliant first draft.

Those others are not I.

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reflecting on the land that feeds us, in today's Philadelphia Inquirer

Sunday, October 2, 2016

We spent a week on a farm being cared for by the earth and those who know it best.

We will never forget that land, our hosts.

I tell that story in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.

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how we keep on writing, how we center inside our song

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The workshop was over. We stood there on the gravel road between the cabins we'd lived in, worked in, worked through. We stood there post-portraits, post-jazz hands, post-laughter, post-tears, and there were questions, still.

Mostly: How do we carry forward what has happened here? How do we write our stories through? Find the time? The calm? The self assurance?

I will write to you, I said, I promised. I will try, for myself, to remember how.

Often my life is not my own. There is no calm, no well of time, I do not see myself in any mirror. I can go on like that because I must go on like that, but then: I miss the words, I physically miss them. I feel an empty spin inside my soul until I can't help it anymore. I rise early to claim a sentence for myself.

Except: Days, weeks, months have gone by since I have written anything real. Except: The sentence that I write is obvious, flat. It is not art, and it is art I need, and so I turn to others. Just now Olivia Laing is sitting here. More Annie Dillard. Old James Baldwin. The first Ta-Nehisi Coates. I take what I need and my hour of me is up, but something, inside, stirs.

The next day I rise early again. I take out my flat sentence. I spin it around with a spoon. I work it until it holds some music for me, until it suggests what the next sentence might be. So now there are two sentences, maybe three, and for the next several days, in this earliest of hours, I read those sentences, I sink into their rhythms, I probably don't even know the story yet. But I've got me a song to sing through the rest of the day, when the client calls, or the work comes in, or I make a trip for oil or pepper. I've got me a song, a steadying place, and when the call I'm waiting for comes in late, or I'm put on hold, or the dinner simmers, there it is: my song.

The song is. I keep it close. It is a mystery, and it is something mine. That something alive, to return to.

We write our stories slow, from a centering place.





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Juncture Workshops: One Final Spot Left in Cape May, NJ

Monday, September 26, 2016



We may still be riding the waves of our Field Notes memoir workshop but we're also eagerly anticipating our time by the Jersey shore, this coming November.

We have one spot left in this gorgeous painted lady.

Write to us here, if you have interest.

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Juncture Notes 07: coming soon

Saturday, September 24, 2016

We're still in a bit of a farm-induced haze here at Juncture. Missing those writers we came to know on that slice of Central Pennsylvania earth. Imagining those stories flowing forward.

Our next issue of Juncture Notes will feature the scenes from and lessons of that workshop, as well thoughts on a new bestselling memoir. We'll send it out to our list in a day or so. If you'd like to be on that list, just sign up here. Juncture Notes, which combines Bill's art with my memoir obsession, is free.

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there is power. there are people.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

I walked the famous streets of Washington, DC, yesterday in a melancholy mood. Those beautiful buildings. That Anselm Kiefer in the lobby of the National Gallery. That Sally Mann, so young, on the walls. That chocolate growing on the trees at the Botanical Gardens. That First Ladies' garden. Those reflecting pools.

So much stands on the verge right now. So much at risk. Nothing to be taken for granted. Who do we trust and what do we trust them with?

There is power. There are people. Every single soul I met yesterday was a good people. The security guard at the National Gallery who loved my RBG canvas bag (a tote created to celebrate the launch of Debbie Levy's I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark. I'll tell her, I said.). The lady at the gift shop who helped direct me toward the right door, outside of which I would hail a cab. The cab driver himself, who helped me with his heavy door and promised me, as the afternoon traffic swelled, that we would eventually get there. Emi, who greeted me at Politics and Prose, Debbie who hugged me when she arrived, her family and friends, who made me feel as if I were one among them. The guy at the Metro station who helped me get a Metro card when my debit card wouldn't work. The woman beside me on the subway train who explained the one tracking delays in the underground tunnel as we sat there, going nowhere. You'll make your Amtrak train, she said. And she was right.

Every single person I met was kind, easily so.

Couldn't we all be kind, easily so?

And trustworthy?

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farm scenes. images from the inaugural Juncture Workshop.

Saturday, September 17, 2016





It's been almost a year since Bill and I first began to talk about the creation of a landscape-immersive writing workshop series and eight months since we started planning in earnest. We chose a western Pennsylvania farm for our inaugural experience, a place where we believed that the history, authenticity, and land itself would yield, reflect, demand, transform. A place where hard work is earth work. Where routines dictate, except, of course, in all those cases, at all those times, when human beings have no actual authority.

We write about life, when we write memoir. This is life.

We had come to know these writers in the days leading up to the week. Or, we thought we had. But as each arrived, waved their hands, threw her arms around us, settled in, we learned so much more. About them, but also (inevitably) about ourselves.

There were lessons for us all.

We were fed the food of the earth at a time when every drop of water counted. We sat in circles on soft couches and hard chairs and trusted. We leaned forward or sat back. We were intensity. We were calm. We couldn't find what we needed to find and then (miraculously) we did.

I will write more of this soon. The next issue of our Juncture workshop newsletter will carry this story forward. For now, this post is an act of gratitude. A thank you for those who came, those who believed, those who, by making a commitment to the group and to themselves, by doing the asked thing even when the asked thing was a hard thing, grew.

Before our very eyes.

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the past cannot be grasped, and yet we memoirists try

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Starting tomorrow, at a farm in Central Pennsylvania, it will begin. The inaugural Juncture Workshops memoir program.

The cows and the pigs and the chicks and the peacocks and the horse are ready for us, we're told. The sky and the hills. The fresh air and the peace. Those writers.

We will spend one day focused on uncertainty and time, as all memoir writers must. Recently I read Olivia Laing's gorgeous To the River and found, nested within, this paragraph. It will be shared with the writers, but also, I'm thinking, why not share it here, with you. For this is how it feels to be alive. To have hoped for something. To have almost had something. To have lost something. To allow that lostness to linger.

This is life, and this is memoir, with thanks to Olivia Laing:
It felt as if my blood had turned to mercury. I lay on the bed almost weeping, suddenly overwhelmed by the past few months. I hadn't thought I was running away, but now all I wanted was to turn tail and fly, back into the woods, the dense, enchanged Andredesleage where no one could find me or knew my name. Why does the past do this? Why does it linger instead of receding? Why does it return with such a force sometimes that the real place in which one stands or sits or lies, the place in which one's corporeal body most undeniably exists, dissolves as it were nothing more than a mirage? The past cannot be grasped; it is not possible to return in time, to regather what was lost or carelessly shrugged off, so why these sudden ambushes, these flourishes of memory?





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Hillbilly Elegy: because the solutions to our problems begin with us

Thursday, September 8, 2016

In his New York Times bestselling Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance examines the world of "poor, white Americans" through a very personal lens: his own. Now a major author with a Yale Law School degree and excellent job, a husband to a beautiful wife, a man with a home and two dogs, Vance was also the child of a five-times married, often radically behaved, addicted mother who moved Vance from home to home and raised him within a culture of violent self defense and trauma.

How Vance became a cultural emigrant, as he puts it, is a major part of the story here. But Vance is also deeply interested in understanding what is possible, still, for the community that gave him his roots. He is focused on the relationships (with his sister, his grandparents, his aunt, the Marines, his professors, his Usha) that rescued and sustained him. The opportunities he was given and the legacies he'll always carry forward. He's interested in setting aside easy excuses so that others might fulfill a greater purpose.

The prose is straightforward, and that works perfectly here. The self reckoning is credible, generous. The lessons are important, especially in this election year. Vance is not an apologist. He is not a condemner, either. Yes, Vance, admits, he was helped by schools and grants and outreach. But mostly he was helped by his gun-toting, loud-cursing grandmother who loved him in steep ways and gave him a centering place during raucous teen years.

Who we are as people, Vance argues, reflects the ways in which we have been cared for. That caring begins not with a law, not with a sentence, not with rules and regulations, but with a sense of personal responsibility for the generation of now, the generation of tomorrow. We build our communities person by person, and while candidates matter, while institutions can help, none of it will reach anyone who has not, in some way, been seen or loved.

Here he is, toward the end:

I believe we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth. We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother. We make young men consume cotton undergarments to protect a sister's honor. But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?

Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.
See. Love. Bluster can't save us. Kindness can.


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on friendships, jealousies, and theft in art (The Art of Rivalry)

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Art of Rivalry has had my attention these past few days. Sebastian Smee on, to quote the subtitle, "Four Friendships, Betrayals, And Breakthroughs in Modern Art." Freud and Bacon. Manet and Degas. Matisse and Picasso. Pollock and de Kooning.

Most of the time it's just not pretty (the lives, I mean, not the book itself, which I loved). Most of the time, in fact, it is painful as the early friendships and conversations and comradely hope dissolve into jealousies and theft, unfair advantages, unforeseen attacks from the right or left. One artist will lean toward another, helpful. The other artist will admire, acknowledge awe, then take—acts of stealth and planned disturbances. The artists will goad the other artists on, and the work will advance, the volcanic pressures between them will yield new forms, but oh, the cost of it all. Borrowed ideals, lovers, friends, techniques. Smash ups. New work. Bold work. Despair. It is hard to watch, even at this distance, because the lessons here are not just historic. Such rivalries, in every discipline, still and always abound.

I felt particular empathy for Matisse in the face of a younger Picasso who wanted much, who drew close to Matisse for his own advantage, who leaned on the generosity of the older artist, then locked himself away in the hopes of emerging as top dog/best. Writes Smee, about Picasso's breakthrough Demoiselles, which borrowed heavily from ideas and discoveries of Matisse (ideas/discoveries that Matisse had overtly, generously shared with Picasso, ideas/discoveries that Picasso absorbed by paying close attention to Matisse's work), "The most credible account (of Matisse's comments after seeing Picasso's canvas) was him saying, more mutedly but with evident bitterness: 'A little boldness discovered in a friend's work is shared by all.' The implication being that while he, Matisse, had dedicated years of experiment and honest inquiry to making a high-order aesthetic breakthrough, here, now, was Picasso, stealing ideas he didn't fully grasp in order to produce a painting that was deliberately and senselessly ugly—all for the sake of looking equally bold."

From the evidence presented by Smee, at least, Matisse had every right to draw the conclusion he had, and every right to watch, amazed and not quite certain what to do, as Picasso continued to abuse their friendship in search of ever-greater stature. But what Smee's book also makes clear is that "winning" in art is hardly ever a satisfactory outcome. The victor becomes the target, the next big thing to push aside, the isolated genius who is no longer just one of the guys (all the primary artists in Smee's books are guys), but a force that (in order to be reckoned with) must in some way be destroyed.

de Kooning, for example, outlasts, outwits Jackson Pollock. He gets to be the Numero Uno Artist of the time. He even sleeps with Pollock's last girlfriend. He wins! But here is winning, not just for de Kooning, but for so many artists, dead and alive. Winning is its own form of loss:
But he was far from content. Even as the adulation peaked, he seemed increasingly harried, frustrated, and petulant. Alone at the top, he behaved as if under permanent threat—just as Pollock had. He was pining, too, for lost comrades—"imaginary brothers" gone missing. He was missing Gorky, his old sidekick, long dead. And he was pining, obscurely, for Pollock. More than anyone else, Pollock would have understood what de Kooning was now going through; what it was like to be at the top of the pile; what forces buffeted you up there and made you want to drink yourself to oblivion.
Moderation is not a sexy word. The quiet conversationalist is rarely the headline maker. The giver is not the victor, not most of the time anyway. Greatness comes at incalculable costs. The Art of Rivalry offers object lessons in how art gets made—and in how life might have been (might be) better lived.




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