seven questions for Leonardo

Dear Leonardo,

This is a letter from the future.  500 years have passed since you lived your days in the salubrious era we now refer to as ‘The Renaissance’.  You wouldn’t recognise this 21st century world, and it strikes me that you’d find the segment of it known as ‘The Art Scene’ a very odd circus indeed.  In this day and age the makings of celebrity artists are commodified, while at grooming institutions called Art Colleges young aspiring creatives routinely endure brainwashing (i.e. psychological trauma) as they are prepared for entry to, and status within, the art market.

Just recently I was delighted to revisit some of your drawings of Deluges and Maelstroms.  I realise that these works are but a tiny portion of your creative output, yet it seems to me that they exemplify much in our contemporary art world that has been trivialised, or lost altogether.

I’m no art historian and have scant knowledge of the details of your own art education, so when these questions popped up in response to the drawings, I decided to put them to you personally.
 

Leonardo da Vinci - Deluges and Maelstroms, The Royal Collection

 
1          Did anyone in a position of assumed authority (teacher, curator, dealer, media critic) ever tear apart your work/practice in a critique, then inform you as to how it should look, and/or how you need to proceed?
 

Leonardo da Vinci - Deluges and Maelstroms, The Royal Collection

 
2          Were you ever advised to subvert beauty?  Were you cautioned that expressing the beautiful is beneath the concerns of any significant artist?
 

Leonardo da Vinci - Deluges and Maelstroms, The Royal Collection

 
3          Were you ever told that you needed to loosen up and express yourself more spontaneously?  That you might benefit from courses or workshops where you’d learn how to find your inner artist?
 

Leonardo da Vinci - Deluges and Maelstroms, The Royal Collection

 
4          Was immaculate attention to detail and painstaking craftsmanship sniffed at in your day?  Were artisans who worked this way considered anal or seen to be avoiding unresolved issues?
 

Leonardo da Vinci - Deluges and Maelstroms, The Royal Collection

 
5          Did anyone ever advise you against your instinct (and awesome capacity) to express a sense of the sacred in your work?  Were you ever told this devotional quality had no traction in the world of serious art?  (i.e. What sells.)
 

Leonardo da Vinci - Deluges and Maelstroms, The Royal Collection

 
6          Many of your paintings carry a narrative, whether sacred or secular.  Did anyone ever tell you these narratives weren’t edgy enough?  Not original or conceptual enough?  That they lacked the irony and anxiety required to be really relevant?
 

Leonardo da Vinci - Deluges and Maelstroms, The Royal Collection

 
7          OR …  were you blessed to have guidance from some inner angel who ensured that your imperatives were never at risk from the ideas of others?  Who ensured you’d never be led astray from your own way of expressing the wonder of being alive – of inquiring, exploring with innocence and joy?

 

Of looking ever more deeply into the suchness of your world?

 

Without apology?

 

Rhetorical questions, I know.  Please excuse me.  So many young (and seasoned) artists of my time encounter and believe dogmatic and arcane opinions issuing forth from the self-appointed pundits of the visual arts.  Sometimes they abandon their creative practice entirely.

Most of these questions will make no sense to you, since in your day concepts such as “inner artist” had yet to be dreamed up;  the whole mind-field of psychology wouldn’t be mapped out (invented) for another few hundred years.  But I know you’ll understand the bit about an inner angel.

Please accept my heartfelt gratitude for your relentless curiosity and unswerving commitment.  Thank you for reminding us all, as the centuries roll on, of the high art of making authentic art.

Yours sincerely,

MLS
Maker and misfit from the 21st century.

 


 

About the drawings:

I am indebted to Stephen Ellcock, curator of the ultimate virtual ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ on Facebook, for this collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings from The Royal Collection.  (Ellcock’s page is an ever-expanding, online museum of images, visual delights, oddities and wonders drawn from every conceivable culture, era and corner of the globe.  For artists, it’s quite simply the best – and perhaps only – reason to hang in/out with FB.)

From his page:  “The series of drawings by Leonardo of a mighty deluge are among the most enigmatic and visionary works of the Renaissance.  Modest in size and densely worked, each shows a landscape overwhelmed by a vast tempest.  The drawings were probably made for his own satisfaction rather than as studies for any project.”

 


 

News from The Royal Collection:

In February 2019, to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, 144 of the Renaissance master’s greatest drawings in the Royal Collection will go on display in 12 simultaneous exhibitions across the UK.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing, a nationwide event, will give the widest-ever UK audience the opportunity to see the work of this extraordinary artist. 12 drawings selected to reflect the full range of Leonardo’s interests – painting, sculpture, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology and botany – will be shown at each venue in Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Southampton and Sunderland, with a further venue to be announced.

For more information:
www.rct.uk

 


Have you read I, Leonardo, written and illustrated by Ralph Steadman?
It’s a masterpiece.  Check it out by clicking the cover image below:

And don’t miss this beautifully illustrated review by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings:
Beloved British Artist Ralph Steadman Illustrates the Life of Leonardo da Vinci


The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.

– Leonardo da Vinci


 

salmon-mind and stream-ing

I would like to offer a warm welcome to the many readers of Phyllis Cole-Dai’s wonderful poetry blog – A Year of Being Here – who followed the links to this website and blog, and who have decided to subscribe. May you find nourishment and inspiration here to accompany you on your way.

This turn of events was uninvited and unexpected. It is deeply appreciated. I offer bows of gratitude to both Phyllis, and Ron C Moss, who made the generous referral.

Recently I posted a piece on another of my sites – wonderingmind studio – which brought interesting feedback from readers whose experience tallied with its theme. I’ve decided to share it here as well, with apologies for the duplication to readers who follow both blogs. It’s a compilation about the adventure into genuine creativity – which always demands a willingness to become hopelessly lost.
I know you know what I mean.


Reflections on creativity, flow, and the not-always-gentle art of unlearning.

 

Ohara Koson 1877 – 1945, Leaping Salmon in a Rapid, Ukiyo-e, 1910

 

Invitations – via courses, retreats and workshops – to “learn how to be in creative flow” are as ubiquitous as those promising “breakthrough experiences of awakening”. I’ve been around both ballparks long enough to have become very sceptical of these claims and promises.  Red herrings are strong swimmers and prolific breeders. Especially when their favourite tucker – yummy money – is flowing.

Can creativity be taught?  Can “awakening” ever be an experience?  These questions are intimately related but I’ll focus on the first one, since this blog is primarily about art and creativity.

My experience, both within my own practice and as a teacher of visual language, constantly confirms that genuine creativity can unfold only when there’s an abandonment of everything one has learned about it.

 

I am trying to check my habits of seeing,
to counter them for the sake of greater freshness.
I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing.
– John Cage

It seems to me there are two types of “flow”, but only one is truly creative.  One occurs when I’ve slipped into an eddy of old patterns and processes – those that brought me pleasure and profit in the past.  I know where I’m going; it’s easy.  It might even make me feel satisfied that I’ve had a good day in the studio – for a while.  I call this type “phony-flow” for obvious reasons.

Then there’s the other kind of “flow”, the kind that’s hard to write about because you weren’t there when it was underway.  It involves encounters and experiences with the Unknown, and a kind of gracious movement that is closer to stream-ing. When you look at what was created during the movement – whatever your mode of expression might be – what you see astonishes you.  You know without a shadow of doubt that you didn’t do it.  And yet you recognize that this is your most authentic work.

 

I don’t really trust ideas, especially good ones.
Rather I put my trust in the materials that confront me,
because they put me in touch with the unknown.
It’s then that I begin to work…
when I don’t have the comfort of sureness and certainty.
– Robert Rauchenberg

 

Creativity, by definition, implies a leap from the known to the unknown.  It is not the same as innovation, which has its feet firmly planted in the familiar.  Nor is it the same as invention, which implies a desired outcome or end product.  It has no pedagogy or curriculum.  There are no maps of the territory.  The only strategy we can employ, if we are earnest enough, is that of finding out what sabotages its natural expression.*

 

Whatever I know how to do, I’ve already done.
Therefore I do what I do not know how to do.

– Eduardo Chillida

~

I am always doing that which I cannot do,
in order that I may learn how to do it.
– Pablo Picasso

So my personal reaction to courses claiming to cultivate skills to access creative flow isn’t an enthusiastic one. I’m just not interested in exploring notions others might have (no matter what their pedigree) of ways to free my inner artist.  If anything is called for on my via creativa it’s the exile of that artist-ego with its accumulation of ideas, certainties, and its insatiable need for recognition.

Using the metaphor of a stream, it’s easy to understand that “flow” only moves downstream.  And as everyone knows, the source is always upstream.  Floating along in the flow is fine; it’s recreational and maybe allows a brief escape from stress – witness the huge popularity of doodle-books and colouring-in books.  There’s a place for this, of course, but let’s not kid ourselves that we’re being genuinely creative.

 

Remember, a dead fish can float down a stream,
but it takes a live one to swim upstream.
– W.C. Fields

If you ache for the authenticity, the unknowable and artist-vaporising creativity of the Source, forget about flow.  Abandon the “how-to” red herrings.

Adopt salmon-mind.  Make your way upstream.  You know the way – it’s imprinted in your cells.

Leap those rapids. Outwit those hungry bears.

 

My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful,
the more narrowly I limit my field of action
and the more I surround myself with obstacles.
– Richard Diebenkorn

How do we fuel our quest upstream? By dismissing irrelevancies (as Buckminster Fuller advised); by finding the questions that have no rational answers yet haunt us nevertheless. By spending a great deal of time in solitude and silence watching the mind’s desperate and insistent groping for certainty, affirmation, context. By the way of unlearning; by abandonment of our pet theories and preferences. Our courage in this quest will inevitably deliver us to the sweet dark pool of ultimate unknowing, and, worn out from the challenges to our sureties, we’ll drop our eggs.  We’ll sink.  The Source will reclaim its own.

Our eggs will hatch, some of them, and be swept downstream to spread the news: it is possible!  It is possible to return to the Source and leave the old life there.  It is possible to dissolve into the stream as it makes its way to the Ocean; to rest in and as its stream-ing, as its authentic expression, without any concern for or notion of, whether we’re “being creative” or not. (If that question is still arising… keep swimming upstream.)

Then we can speak of “flow” – because we’ve experienced that it’s exactly what we are. The one who thought they could (or couldn’t) find it, could tap it for artistic purposes, could promote it or become an expert and sell it – that one was the saboteur all along.

Until salmon-mind set it free.

 

I find my paintings by working on them…
…it is through the making of the paintings that I have many discoveries
which are different from ideas.

~

Painting is a long road.
The beauty to me is in the not knowing where one is going.

~

Perhaps we do not need to understand it all.
– Lawrence Carroll

 


* The series of e-books empty canvas – wondering mind was compiled with this mission in mind.
You can download them for free at wonderingmind studio.


Image: Ohara Koson 1877 – 1945, Leaping Salmon in a Rapid, Ukiyo-e, 1910


From the bookshelf: Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson


 

Agnes Martin: "I paint with my back to the world."

Agnes Martin: I paint with my back to the world.
The last word.


 

wabi-sabi: the beauty of imperfection

Tai Carmen at Parallax Journal has written a post that’s inspired me to do something new (for me) – click the reblog button.

My studies in Japan introduced me to the concept of Wabi-Sabi and my heart took to it like a moth to a flame. It was in Kyoto that I found Leonard Koren’s book Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers– a magnificent companion for me during my days in Kyoto as well as the more remote regional areas I visited.

“To find beauty in imperfection is not intuitive to the Western mind.” We race after what should be, and romanticise what was, ensuring that we rarely see what is. Wabi-Sabi turns our perception towards what is, and more. It treasures it. There is great fulfilment in this.

Thank you Tai.

PARALLAX:

By Tai Carmensite credit: www.mindful.org/in-your-life/arts-and-creativity/wabi-sabi-for-artists-designers-poets-philosophers

“Wabi-Sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent & incomplete.” ~ Leonard Koren

“Wabi is the beauty that springs from the creative energy that flows in all things, animate or not. It’s a beauty that, like nature itself, can appear with dark and light, sad and joyful, rough and gentle.” ~ Makoto Ueda

“Beauty is radiant and tactile, not airbrushed.” ~ Joe Hefferon 

The term Wabi-Sabi represents a Japanese aesthetic philosophy that embraces authenticity over perfection.

Characterized by asymmetry, irregularity, simplicity, economy, austerity—modesty & intimacy—wabi-sabi values natural objects & processes as emblems of our transitory existence. Rust, woodgrain, freckles—the texture of life.

grandmothers-hands-todd-fox, site credit: http://fineartamerica.com/featured/grandmothers-hands-todd-fox.html

Developed in the 15th century in reaction to the lavish, ostentatious ornamentation of the aristocracy, wabi-sabi centers around three principals: “nothing is perfect, nothing lasts, and nothing is finished.”

“The initial inspiration for wabi-sabi’s metaphysical, spiritual, and moral principles come from ideas about simplicity…

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finding a truth for one’s work

 

Artwork by Channa Horwitz

 

I came to do what I do
by giving up all that I was trained to do.
Life drawing, easel painting, abstraction etc.

I chose to use the least number of choices
and have a reason for any choice I made.

I was searching for a truth for my work.

I did not want to be influenced by any one else.

So, closely following my nose
and asking questions of my last work
I came to do my next work.
The phrase I asked was,
“What would happen if I…?”

That simple question lead me down a strange path
and to a body of very personal work.

– Channa Horwitz

 


channa horwitz at the artisans’ gallery