Moments of Drought for Artists by Jeannine Cook

Every artist, no matter what the discipline or form of art, has times when artistic "drought" prevails. Pressures of daily life, illness, travel – there are many reasons which dictate that it is very hard to get down to creating work.

I was thinking about this situation recently, because I seem to be more wedded to driving and logistics than creating work at present. Yet there is a quiet little voice at the back of my head that says that when life slows down a little, the drought period will allow floating ideas to rise to the surface again.

I remember how Francisco Goya produced an amazing body of work during a long illness in Cadiz, around 1792-94. He was freed from the pressure of commissioned work, and perhaps too, his deafness during his illness made him a much keener observer of people for the portraits he executed. At any rate, as he recuperated, he experimented in his paintings, drawings and even the aquatint etchings which would become known, when published in 1799, as the Caprichos. His self-portrait, on the right, done in 1790-95, shows a self-scrutiny that is solemn and lonely.

Autorretrato ante el caballete, 1790-95, Francisco Goya, (Image courtesy of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid)

Autorretrato ante el caballete, 1790-95, Francisco Goya, (Image courtesy of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid)

Other works from this period of crucial artistic development are very sobering, for Goya developed a much more critical and introspective eye, producing profoundly penetrating psychological and social commentaries on his world. The image below is no. 79 of the Caprichos, entitled Nadie nos ha visto (No one has seen us).

Caprichos, no. 79, Nadie nos ha visto (No one has seen us). 1799, Francisco Goya (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum,New York)

Caprichos, no. 79, Nadie nos ha visto (No one has seen us). 1799, Francisco Goya (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum,New York)

Frida Kahlo is another artist who famously suffered periods of illness and difficulty, but she learned to use these times as springboards for her work. So as one goes along in life, trying to get through periods when art seems from another world, how does one keep in touch with that small inner voice?

Frida Kahlo, photographed by Guillermo Kahlo

Frida Kahlo, photographed by Guillermo Kahlo

I find, personally, that in order to keep at bay the gnawing feeling of emptiness that I experience when I cannot get to drawing, let alone painting, I need to keep thinking about art projects.

Whenever I have a moment of quiet, I try to summon an idea that I might have had, and I try to explore it in my mind's eye. The imagination is a far more adaptable "computer" screen than a real screen. No need for any image programme as you mentally try out a composition, move it around, add elements, change colours, explore ways to do something. Then I will leave the image alone, and move on with life. But later, I will come back to the image and try further to refine the whole concept and composition. Eventually, my "drought" period will end, and then I know that I have something that at least can start me back into the process of being an artist creating something. It is a form of bridge, but very helpful, I find.

Interestingly when this situation has happened in the past, and yes, it can happen quite often – that's life! – I later can look at the work I created, and know exactly what was happening in my life at that time. The work is a form of self-portrait, a moment in time, and it brings back vividly the emotions and thoughts of that period. In essence, these works of art that allow one back into the normal rhythm of being an artist can be the eloquent equivalent of entries in a private journal or memoir.

Single-mindedness by Jeannine Cook

I recently alluded to a wonderful book I am reading, The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, about the 18th century Romantic generation's discoveries and accomplishments in science, exploration, literature and many other disciplines. The account of astronomer William Herschel's sister, Caroline, interested me deeply. She must have been a pint-sized (about five foot in height) force, highly intelligent and extremely self-disciplined. She was her brother's invaluable astronomical assistant, noting down all his observations as he peered through his wonderful telescopes at outer space, night after night. During the day time, for countless years, she ran his house, kept accounts, received eminent visitors and made the necessary calculations to complete William's observations.

However, in due course, she herself became a fully fledged astronomer, with her own beautiful telescopes which her brother designed and made for her. With single-mindedness, she began to sweep the skies, looking for comets. Like her brother, she became sufficiently familiar with the patterns of the night sky that she could almost "sight read", and thus more easily spot anything different. She became famous as the first lady astronomer, discovering a number of comets and garnering respect and acclaim in the international scientific community. She was also awarded the first professional salary every paid to a woman scientist in Britain when King George III granted her an annual stipend for life. Her single-mindedness, during those long, lonely nights spent looking through her telescope, brought her not only personal satisfaction, but much deserved respect.

Single-mindedness is an ingredient that I believe every creative person needs - whether in science, literature, art, music... Take a much respected and successful author, such as Robert Coram. His non-fiction books range from Boyd to American Patriot or Nobody's Child, while his fiction writing is extensive. His remark, during a lunch we were all sharing, was that for him, ten-hour days were followed by watching a film, by way of relaxation, before bed. That takes single-mindedness - ten-hour days, working on a project that normally takes about three years from start to publication. I mentally compared that with my time spent drawing and painting, and decided I needed to juggle personal and professional life more successfully!

I also had a reminder of another form of creative single-mindedness, as I listened today to NPR's Susan Stamberg talking about the current exhibition at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington, The Art of Gaman. This is apparently an exhibition of the art and crafts created by the Japanese Americans interned in camps here in the United States during World War II. Since they were simply dumped in these camps with no more for each family than four walls, lit by a light bulb, a pot-bellied stove in a corner and cots, they had to fashion anything else they needed out of any scraps they could find. But they went further than just utensils and furniture. Their single-minded courage led many of them to create art, jewellery and other pieces which are now on display. "Gaman" in Japanese means the ability to "bear the seemingly unbearable with dignity and patience".

Bearing the Unbearable: The Art of Gaman , Iseyama teapot

Bearing the Unbearable: The Art of Gaman , Iseyama teapot

Another manifestation of such single-mindedness was the art created by Jewish children and adults sent to Theresienstadt in World War II or, indeed, the drawings and paintings created in Auschwitz or Buchenwald or elsewhere. Think too of the dedication of those who were in Theresienstadt to composing and creating music. Faced with such appalling conditions, it must have required almost superhuman single-mindedness to continue creating beauty and uplifting manifestations of the best of the human spirit.

The Frequent Juxtapositions of Beauty and Terror by Jeannine Cook

The adage about beautiful art being created against a backdrop of terror and upheavals has always fascinated me. I was thinking of its ironies recently as I sat listening to utterly lovely chamber music, of the most civilised and uplifting, and realised that I was facing a huge and dramatic Julian Story 1888 painting of "The Black Prince at the Battle of Crecy" hanging on the wall of the Telfair Museum of Art Rotunda Gallery. I looked further around the walls and there was another savage battle scene, also painted in 1888 by Josef Brandt, simply entitled "A Battle".

The Battle of Crecy, Julian Russell Story, oil on canvas, 1888, (Image courtesy of the Telfair Museums, Savannah, GA)

The Battle of Crecy, Julian Russell Story, oil on canvas, 1888, (Image courtesy of the Telfair Museums, Savannah, GA)

Granted that the chronologies of all these contexts were totally unrelated. The Savannah Music Festival concert featured a wonderful Mozart 1785 Piano Quartet in G minor and Dvorak's 1878 String Sextet in A Major being played by violinist Daniel Hope, pianist Sebastian Knauer, violists Philip Dukes and Carla Maria Rodrigues and friends. The subject of Story's monumental painting was the 1346 Battle of Crecy, a pivotal battle during the Hundred Year War when the Black Prince Edward of Wales killed King John of Bohemia. The 1656 battle depicted in the other painting recorded a skirmish between Swedes and Polish troops. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition for me, during that concert, reminded me that innumerable musical masterpieces, so much visual art, so many other kinds of artistic creation, are produced at periods of huge strife and stress, whether of war, economic distress or personal illness and suffering. To me, the capacity to create beauty and uplifting art at such times is one of mankind's most admirable characteristics.

Daniel Hope has programmed a very special concert on April 1st, in Savannah's Temple Mickve Israel, which perfectly illustrates this capacity to create beauty in the face of unspeakable suffering. Called "Forbidden Music", the programme features music created in the Theresienstadt concentration camp north of Prague by young Jewish musicians before they met their death. Daniel Hope and his wonderful musician friends will be playing a String Trio composed in 1944 by Gideon Klein. Klein was born in the present-day Czech Republic, deported to Theresienstadt (where he organised concerts with his fellow prisoners) and thence to Auschwitz before meeting his death in Furstengrube concentration camp in January, 1945. Another work featured in this programme again underlines this juxtaposition of beauty and terror: Siegmund Schul's Two Chassidic Dances, Opus 15. Schul, a young German composer, was deported to Theresienstadt with his wife in 1941. Whilst there, he composed this and other compositions, testaments to his strength and resiliency. He died in Theresienstadt in 1944, victim of tuberculosis.

The list of works of art of all description that we inherit from men and women of enormous talent and courage is huge. I think it is good to remind ourselves always that whatever our personal travails, we can find inspiration and encouragement from others that - yes, despite everything, we can still be artists and produce work that can be of value to others.

Guess what - the 'flu and art don't mix! by Jeannine Cook

Well, I seem to be following the general fashion at present, coughing my heart out and trying to recover from 'flu that was over-generously shared in a plane returning from Europe last week

What got me interested as I began slightly to revive - or at least stop sleeping all the time - was how effectively the creative side of me, or even the interest in art, had been temporarily extinguished. That led me to reflect on the ramifications of all the artists' lives affected by some form of illness, physical or mental. I decided first and foremost that it is a testimony to the courage of so many of those famous people that despite, or in spite of, everything, they continued, and created marvellous work. Van Gogh comes readily to mind, with all the anguish and tribulations he experienced. Even when he was apparently being treated for epilepsy, he created the work Starry Night which shows the possible side-effects of the digitalis treatment. Perhaps another most daunting situation must have been the blurring of vision that so many older artists experienced with cataracts forming.

Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh,, 1889, (Image courtesy of MOMA, New York)

Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh,, 1889, (Image courtesy of MOMA, New York)

Perhaps another most daunting situation must have been the blurring of vision that so many older artists experienced with cataracts forming.

The Japanese Footbridge, 1920-22, Claude Monet (Image courtesy of MOMA, New York)

The Japanese Footbridge, 1920-22, Claude Monet (Image courtesy of MOMA, New York)

It is interesting that we become more aware of this with Monet's later paintings; he was among the earlier artists to advocate working outdoors en plein air. The sunlight exacted its price. (It is thus a reminder to all of us artists who work outside - shade your eyes as much as possible from the sun.)

An interesting thought evolves from a lot of the examples of artists in previous generations working under daunting physical and mental conditions: many of their conditions can now be detected and alleviated, if not cured. Would we all be the poorer, collectively, if they had not had to push through these handicaps? A fascinating TimesonLine article examines these issues - well worth a read. despite being written some while ago.

These thoughts on artists' ability to transcend physical conditions and still create art tie in with another most interesting article I returned to in January's issue of ARTNews by Ann Landi, entitled "Is Beauty in the Brain of the Beholder?" I had alluded to these fascinating areas of research from another angle when I wrote on December 1st last of the ability of Art to Lift the Spirits of the Sick. This article neatly complements because it discusses some of the neuroesthetics research being carried out, learning what parts of the brain react to - say - images of artworks. There are different parts of the brain that react to colour, form or motion, while other researchers are tiptoeing into the minefields of rating artworks as beautiful, neutral or ugly, in other words, an aesthetic experience. This level of perception of satisfaction with viewing a piece of art is being applied as an experiment to which I have also previously alluded - at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where the exhibition, "Beauty and the Brain: A Neural Approach to Aesthetics" is showing from January 23rd to April 11th. People will be asked to chose a favourite version of Jean Arp's 1959 sculpture, Woman of Delos.

Well. that that remains is to get the different portions of my brain un-be'flued and then perhaps I can do something about creating art, not just thinking about it. I can't wait!

HP Computer woes for an Artist by Jeannine Cook

When a computer crashes, I am reminded saliently and uncomfortably of how much I depend on my office computer and laptop to conduct my art business. Alas, the beauteous world of salt marshes and surging tidal creeks is not the best place to find competent people to help one out - in fact, quite the contrary, and it seems that many local computer repair people are the heirs to the Devonshire coast wreckers of yore.

So the inevitable conclusion, when I cannot even print out an exhibition proposal correctly to meet a deadline, is that I need to swallow hard and buy a new CPU. One that will "reanimate" printers, scanners and all the other gizmos one seems to need in this hydra-headed image business. So a careful study of the latest Consumer Reports computer rankings heads me and my husband to the HP (Hewlett Packard) website, a serious mad-maker. Finally, we narrow down choices that we try to tailor and order on the website. After several attempts, which get one almost to the end and then cancel out, we decide to talk to a real live person. Finally, we succeed. Hurray!

We explain what equipment we have, all the accessories we need to connect to the CPU, ask advice and guidance, and eventually select a Pavilion Elite e 9250t. The scrabble soup of 8Gbs, 1TBs, 1GBs, LANs and SDRAMs gets sorted out. Credit card numbers, e-mail addresses and street addresses are carefully given and laboriously repeated back to us. Signed and sealed - with assurances of an e-mail confirmation to come swiftly.

No confirmation, even 24 hours later. So, armed with order number, my patient husband phones again, since the website doesn't want to recognise we exist. Surprise, surprise, the order has not been put through, despite confirmation. So we start again – with a promised additional delay in the delivery date. Not an impressive start and an augury we should have heeded! However, in record time, I meet the doughty FedEx man staggering up the front steps with the bulky box.

We then spend another chunk of change to bespeak the services of an HP technical representative to come and install the CPU, connect up all the other bits and pieces and get the wireless links going. The only trouble is that until a security code and password are delivered with much flourish and more delay, HP won't get organised on sending someone. We are now into a week of HP dances by now.

The very nice gentleman appears to install everything, on time, and efficiently. He gets quieter and quieter in the computer room and the hours go by. My husband and I exchange glances and raise eyebrows - I suggest cups of tea. Eventually we hear him phoning the HP tech support people and spending the next half-hour having a conversation with a well-meaning person yet again halfway around the world. Someone who is clearly out of his depth and of no use at all. More time elapses.

Finally as the afternoon dusk encloses us, we learn that despite all our earnest conversations and asking advice of the original salespeople at HP, we have ended up as the proud possessors of a totally useless piece of expensive equipment! The problem? Windows 7 !! Mind you, "Genuine Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit" - not just some humpty-dumpty Window 7 programme. We learn that this oh so superior programme, the guts of the CPU , doesn't like to have any truck with any of the other programmes we have for printers, scanners, even our brand new notebook and fairly new laptop. We go round in circles, almost contemplating buying new printers, a parallel CPU with another programme - until we get satiated.

I pick up the phone to HP to see if we can put on Windows Vista instead and end up with a very nervous young man who thinks I can get a CPU with all the other aspects we chose, but with Vista instead of this Windows 7 problem. But, he implores me, please, please call back in half an hour, because his superior isn't there. Has anyone noticed that no superior, anywhere, is ever available now when you ask to speak to a supervisor?

In half an hour, dinner guests are about to walk through the floor, when I am going through the same ridiculous mating dance of the duck-billed platypus of name, e-mail address, mailing address, when I have already given a ticket number of the whole sorry business. And, surprise, no supervisor is available. So at 10.30 p.m., we bid farewell to delightful friends, and I pick up the phone again. 76 minutes later, I am cut off, having had my ears assaulted by ugly, over-loud music and had parrot-voices of great formulaic courtesy. I succeed in getting a return authorisation number because there is no redemption for HP Pavilions with their Windows 7 guts. The singsong voice instructs me to print out the return label: I point out that it is
because we can't use our printers through this HP computer that we want to return it. Oh!

At well after midnight, I have been transferred to about seven departments, been put on hold interminably, had conversations which verged from near lunacy to constructive charm, and decided that HP was an company whose ethos reminded me of General Motors 25 years ago. I wondered whether - in our speeded-up world - it will take so long for another such company to unravel. Such a return transaction should have required one phone call, an explanation, exchange of identifying numbers, and the rest of the return and reinbursement arrangements should have been conducted internally, within HP. Not over two hours on the phone... with my having to repeat the same items over and over and over again to different people in different departments in distant lands.

Eventually, I was the proud possessor of two return authorisation numbers, for the CPU and for the installation fee, with FedEx instructed to pick up one from 7 a.m.-1 p.m., and the second from 1 p.m.-7 p.m. - go figure! FedEx sensibly picks up both packages together. But, and a big but, we await more tracking numbers before the three to five days for reimbursement kick in. Not too marvellous for an artist...

Well, after this saga, I am no further along in conducting my art business that ten days ago. But I am older and wiser as a purchaser of HP computers. Has anyone ever heard of that expression: caveat emptor?