Tuesday, June 02, 2009

A Pilgrimage of Arts & Letters 2: Raw Realizations

woodland stream, near Nelson, NH

In my road journal entry of 4 May, this past roadtrip, I wrote out the realizations that crystallized my awareness that this was not the roadtrip I had thought it was when I firs set out. I accomplished photo and video, too, of course; but the real purpose of the journey was this pilgrimage to the places of artists and writers I've admired, and been influenced by.

This writing in my journal was brought on by my stop in Nelson, New Hampshire, to visit the home and burial place of May Sarton. Later that day, tired from the journey, tired from the bleak, cold, rainy weather, tired from the emotional load of grief about my parents, I hit a wall—or found an edge—and had a bit of a meltdown. At least I have a friend or two to call, when I hit that wall, to talk it out; to vent, to work it out, whatever it takes.

This is some of what I wrote, in the night, afterwards, once I had finally arrived in Maine, and stopped for the night. (I'm going to leave it rather more raw, unedited, and unprocessed than I might normally do here, to preserve what I was thinking in-the-moment.)

4 May 2009, Kennebuck, ME

I’m glad I made this stop [to visit May Sarton's gravesite in Nelson]. It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the real purpose for this trip is for my own literary and artistic pilgrimage, to visit many of the places described or depicted by some writers, painters, and photographers who have great meaning for me. This was the same thing that happened to me out at the Grand Tetons last fall, and at Yosemite, when I felt strongly the presences of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston watching over me, as well as kibitzing at times. The same thing is happening now. . . .

My idea for this road trip was totally wrong. I had thought I was driving out to New England for my photo and video work, gathering images and scenes and sounds for my DVD video art business. But what I'm really doing, in fact, is that I'm on an artistic pilgrimage. I'm drawn to places where favorite artists and writers spent time. I'm going there to get a sense of their places, to learn the land-law of those places.


To go on artistic pilgrimage to meet my artistic idols, teachers, and mentors in their own places.


To learn how place affects art. To learn the land-law of art, of art-making.

To do this for myself. The real purpose of this road trip, unclear until tonight, lost amidst the drama of frustrated expectations. If I make not one more photograph, make not one more minute of video, it will not matter.


To visit museums, galleries, locales, and homes where artist-mentors were. To discover their muses in the land itself.

I’ve visited Sarton’s Nelson, something I never imagined I would do. It was a little strange at times, her word-images overlaid over what I was seeing; her old photographs overlaid over the images of the buildings and places I saw for myself. (Sarton and I also share gardening in common, now that I have becomes more of a gardener, or least have the ambition to be one.)

I visited the Toledo, Ohio, home of the origins of the modern art-glass movement, which gives me a sense of young Dale Chihuly’s origins, among other artists. The Glass Pavilion of the Toledo Art Museum is an homage to art glass, and is itself a beautiful modern building made out of glass, with mostly transparent walls letting in all the light.

I visited the Corning Glass Museum, in Corning, New York, not for the first time, but the first time in decades. I saw many things I remembered, and even more I didn’t. I remembered the telescope mirror glass, the lighthouse Fresnel lenses, and other optics. I think the galleries of glass gathered and grouped by historical time-period were new; or at least new to me. And there was a Chihuly there, in amongst the other modern art glass pieces in their own gallery.

I intend to visit the Maine and Pennsylvania locales of Andrew Wyeth.

I will no doubt encounter more art glass along the way. [And I did: in Columbus, Indiana, on the way home.]

If I do no more on this trip, I will have succeeded. I did not know that until tonight, and it did cause me great pain and suffering until now. Clarity sometimes comes only after the clouds have blown through and dumped on you.

If I do go into NYC after all, which after today I was not inclined to do, it will be not only to see my friends but to spend time with art, and that comes first. I don’t know if I can do it, now, logistically, after everything that’s happened. But I’m going to leave it an open question until it becomes clear.


At Phoenix Books, an amazing used bookstore in an old barn north of Ithaca, NY, finding some editions of poets and other writers important to me: Robinson Jeffers, Peter Matthiesen, Jung, and more.

Finding the new Cavafy collection of the Unpublished Poems. (trans. by Daniel Mendelssohn)

All this points at what I didn’t consciously know till tonight: That the real reason for this trip is an artistic/creative pilgrimage. The rest of it comes second.


And there are obvious affinities between some of them. The book I picked up in Ithaca, on three generations of Wyeth artists, describing how Andrew was so often misunderstood as a pastoralist realist when in fact he is much more abstract, much more modern, much more bleak. The Thomas Hoving essay in the book summarizes both how he has been so often misunderstood, and provides a corrective explanation.

Put that side by side with The Selected Poems of Robinson Jeffers, gathered from Phoenix Books, who in his forward writes of similar bleakness and harshness in both the land and the people who work it. The opening lines of Boats In A Fog, for example:

Sports and gallantries, the stage, the arts, the antics of dancers,
The exuberant voices of music,
Have charm for children but lack nobility; it is bitter earnestness
That makes beauty; the mind
Knows, grown adult.

In his Foreward, the poet writes of the difference between prose, which can be ephemeral and topical of the moment, and poetry, which needs to be durable and eternal, so that readers two thousand years distant can still recognize their lands and lives in the poems. This is why Homer still matters.

So, affinities. Patterns. Identities. Mergings. Muses. Gatherings-in of place and time to make the great art and writing of our times.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I get the idea of a pilgrimage, to walk where your heroes have gone before you. I felt that in Dublin - Hey, Beckett must have walked down these streets and crossed these bridges - but I've never thought to go and stand before anyone's grave. Neither of my parents have gravesites (and, no, I don't have their ashes under the kitchen sink) and they wouldn't have wanted them.I've watched people being put into the ground, stood there and paid my respects as it were, but that was it. Why go back there? That's not where I remember them.

5:32 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

It's not really about the gravesites, it's that they also lived there. It's about soaking up the atmosphere of a place they were in for a long time.

My parents' ashes are buried together in Muskegon, so I'll go back there to visit that place at some time. That's also Mom's birthplace, and childhood home, so, again, it's not just about the gravesite. But if the graves are there, and it's not out of the way, I'll go visit them.

All these rituals are for the living, of course.

9:07 AM  

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