Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Eclipse Bowl

The Eclipse Bowl, 2012, fine art papier-maché

I am calling this piece The Eclipse Bowl. It reminds me of the moon being eclipsed, which will happen tonight during the full moon. And also of the way the late afternoon directional sunlight fell on the bowl when I was making these photos of it, part light, part dark, as if eclipsed.

I like the way the bowl's edges look like streamers of fire or moonlight. Or the trailing edges of clouds covering the moon.

This bowl was made last week during a papier-maché session from remnants left over from a commission to make a much larger bowl. The stock is gold-marbled cream linen paper. It's exquisite in its subtlety, and affecting in its charm. The bowl looks white from a distance, till you get closer and realize it's cream with gold swirls.

When I made this latest set of bowls, I didn't mix enough white glue into the water-glue matrix, so I ended up having to reglue parts of all the bowls I made in the set, this bowl more than any of the others. Nonetheless, I am very pleased with the end results.

Moon, white and cream and
silver, coin spinning in air,
don't let that wolf devour!

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Monday, November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving Gratitudes

One of the things I am grateful for, thankful for, despite all the pain and suffering it took to get me to the point of understanding—the many detours and wrong turns, the early knowledge and adult denials, denials for the sake of propriety and trying to please others, and ending with gratitude even for the horrific medical journey I've been on that culminated in surgery and recovery—is this:

Everything else stripped away, I at least know and accept now that my purpose in life is to make art.

Create. Make things. Write. Make music. Poems. Photography. Digital visionary and shamanic art. Paint. To make art.

It's what I'm best at doing, possibly the only thing I'm really any good at doing. It was what I was born to do.

I knew this when I was a boy, but then everything in life, and almost everyone, conspired to convince me I was wrong, that I could never succeed at being a composer or artist. That I had to find a "real" job. And I believed them. Or enough parts of me were beaten into that belief that I started to sabotage my own artistic success, by doubt and fear and self-created drama.

Enough. Maybe I'll never "succeed" as an artist, by becoming a wealthy and famous composer or writer or artist, but at least I've stopped fighting the core truth: making art is what I'm supposed to do.

Doesn't mean it will always be easy, or pain-free, but having a purpose goes a long way towards making the rest of life bearable.

I'm thankful for knowing what I'm FOR.

I hope you know that about yourself, too.

Thank You for the gift of beautiful and artful things
For the gift of being able to appreciate and enjoy them
For the gift of being able to make them
For the tools and materials and skills used to make them
And for the friends to enjoy making alongside
And for the friends to enjoy them along with

I think it was probably the life-threatening, near-death experiences I've been through recently—during which a lot of nonessential things got pared away, leaving the core of who I am—that this clarity about my purpose came life was able to emerge. A lot of useless drama in my life has fallen away. I have a heightened sense of my own mortality, the limited time on this earth to get done what I want to get done.

It was also a wake-up call to convert some old bad self-defeating habits into a more positive focus on what is possible rather than what was lost. That's still a new thing, still a fragile bit of learning. I have to remind myself to be positive rather than defeatist, most days. At the same time, I find I have less and less patience for those things and people that seem purposed towards wasting my time and energy. Awareness of your own mortality can heighten your impatience about wasting time. Stated more positively, I'll never be bored again. I have no time for boredom. There's too much to do, and I want to do it all.

Asked recently to write a short bio to accompany a set of my poems being published, I acknowledged this new awareness.

Arthur Durkee has finally woken up to the truth that his purpose in life is to Make Things: be an artist, a composer, poet, musician, painter, photographer, songwriter, landscape sculptor, book artist, videographer, etc. This realization came on the heels of a long illness, near-death experience, surgery, and recovery. Creative work is what he does best, and best loves doing; in fact, it's the only thing he's really good at. He's tried a lot of other jobs, from corporate to retail, and never excelled at any of them. He does still dabble for fun in freelance design and illustration for books and magazines, and creating art for musicians, such as posters and CDs. He observes the world from a slight angle, with an artist's eye and a bard's ear, and gives it back within new frames of focus. We are but mirrors and we marvel.

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Love Is Hard, Love Is Easy

What's the hardest thing to do in the world?


Love is the hardest thing to do.

But it's also the easiest.

We make it harder than it needs to be, with our constant feelings that we don't deserve to be loved. We reject those who love us as fools, because we know we're unlovable. So they must be deluded to love us.

But that's wrong.

We are all loved whether or not we deserve it.

That's what unconditional means.

Your task is to overcome those feelings that you don't deserve love, feelings which you hold up like armor, to keep everyone out, to protect yourself. Or so you believe. But all you're doing is preventing love from getting in, by driving it away because you imagine you don't deserve it. Then it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: you isolate yourself, then call yourself alienated.

It doesn't matter. Nevertheless you are loved.

Deal with it.

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Monday, November 19, 2012

Poems Published November 2012

Triggerfish Critical Review

Issue #10 of this excellent poetry journal is now online and ready to be viewed.

I have six poems featured in this issue. I'm pleased with this publication of some of my poetry, particularly since my work was asked for by the editor. It's always nice to be asked for one's poems, rather than the more common experience of sending poems out at random, never to be heard from again.

Three of these poems are published with audio. The audio is a reading of each associated poem, with soundscape and/or music. I spent an evening reading my poems into my studio recording system, then adding music and sound design to them. I on;y finished three of the six readings before publication, though.

The poems themselves are a selection from the diverse range of poems I've written over the last four or five years. It's been a prolific period, with three or four series running simultaneously, and a scattering of individual pieces. Since I was commissioned to write words and music for "Heartlands," I have been writing fewer "pure" poems, and more song lyrics. Meanwhile, here's a garland of poems for your reading delectation.

Hope you enjoy them.

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Songwriting: Influences

When you list your influences as a songwriter, everyone who reads such lists has certain expectations, expectations which have become clichéd. Even defying the usual expectations has become clichéd; for example, when a songwriter cites as influence "a flowery meadow," or plays a game of reversals.

Never having myself been a member of the Cult of Dylan or the Cult of Cohen, you won't find their names on my songwriting influences list. That's not to deny giving Bob his due as an occasionally unique and brilliant songwriter, with a knack for a turn of phrase both memorable and fresh. But he's not an influence on my songwriting.

There are a lot of songwriters you learn from, that you can learn craft from by looking at their material, learning their songs, analyzing the scores, just listening. I learn a great deal about songwriting by looking at songs. That's just going to school. But that doesn't mean those songwriters become your influences.

No, your influences are those songs and songwriters that get under your skin, that get at your guts, where you go, "I want to do that!" Not imitate, though imitation is often where we learn to start to write, but incorporate. Some sensibility, or mood, or way of looking at the world you never experienced or imagined before. Songwriters who have influenced me have all had a moment for me, or many moments, where I got lost inside the worlds they created, inhabited those worlds, and started writing about those worlds myself, using my own words and music to respond from inside those worlds.

It's about being haunted. Haunting worlds created inside a song, and being yourself haunted by what you found there. That's the stuff that gets inside your bones and blood, and even though the new songs you write may be nothing like those ones the influenced you musically or lyrically, there's a ghost in there that took up lodging in your chest and still sings through your lungs, using your body as its shell to sing its songs.

It's a hungry host kind of haunting, that won't leave you in peace, but requires you to keep on singing. Eventually you learn that music is the alchemy of survival, just as art is the alchemy of life, transforming suffering into something that can be endured. Just.

One of my influences, by this definition, as a songwriter is John Dowland, the great Elizabethan composer and lutenist and songwriter.

In the alchemical transaction that is music, doing the blues, singing and playing about the worst things in life, makes you feel better. Making music about despair, death, horror, suffering, love lost, loneliness,violation, pain, all that paradoxically helps you feel less alone, feel better. Some days the blues are the only thing that keeps you going. They give you a reason to get through the night, when there isn't any other.

John Dowland wrote the Elizabethan blues. They still help us keep going.

Here are the lyrics to what is still one of the greatest songs by one of the greatest songwriters ever: "Flow, My Tears," by John Dowland:

Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

Down vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are dark enough for those
That in despair their lost fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.

Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my weary days
Of all joys have deprived.

From the highest spire of contentment
My fortune is thrown;
And fear and grief and pain for my deserts
Are my hopes, since hope is gone.

Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world's despite.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Painting Journal

Aurorae, acrylic on paper, 2012

A painting journal

Trying something semi-new. Keeping a journal as I paint. Writing down thoughts in the pauses between painting during a session. Just as a record of the creative process.

Listening to music, while I paint, on random shuffle on iTunes on my laptop. Keep in mind that on my studio computer, my iTunes library can now play for over 190 days continuously, with no repeats. All kinds of music, truly random.

Thursday, November 8
4:16 PM

Feel like painting today. There is sunlight streaming in for the first time in weeks. There’s one painting that I want to finish, now.

Don't be afraid to paint over something you liked before, but which didn't work for this painting. I am finding myself wanting to finish one of the “Lights” (Aurora Borealis) series of paintings today, after having it set aside for weeks. I have the iTunes music library on shuffle, listening to random pieces while painting. All over the avant-classical pop rock map. Copland to Patsy Cline to books on CD to Kate Bush.

Several layers of dry rush blue night sky, over existing backgrounds. Then the luminosity of the aurorae themselves. Lots of edge softenings, nuances, translucencies.

Even though I started this painting with bold geometric shapes, I've moved away towards something more fractal, more natural. Follow the brush. Bold and solid under layers yield to thinner, translucent, feathered upper layers. It looks better that way.

Because of the way I'm painting right now, or because of the abstract-realist subject matter, I find myself using large flat brushes. Angled strokes, really rather calligraphic. Sometimes the brushtrokes form lines and surfaces like geographic texture underneath the more visible layers.

Peter Gabriel to science fiction soundtrack creepiness. “He's got a ray gun!” Melodic punk Bob Mould. Zen shakuhachi.

The painting darkens but the lights still shine through.

Thursday, November 8
4:46 PM

The next layers will lighten the painting up again. Let the dark over-layers dry for awhile. Then continue. Often I don't let the acrylics totally dry, because I do like the slight mixing that happens when you dry brush paint over a still slightly wet layer. The same kind of mixing that happens in nature, layers of sedimentary rock feathering and mixing together as they form, bleeding color from minerals leaching into the matrix.

Continuing to photograph each painting in progress, with the idea of using these closeups and sectional photos of color and brushstroke as painted stock backgrounds. Might even create and sell CDs of original stock on my own, of these my own materials. Why not? No one else has them, because no one else has these paintings in progress.

Photographing the painting in progress is also a way of looking at it, contemplating it, looking more closely.

Quick sunset of oncoming winter. There goes the last of the natural light. Even in the failing light, though, continuing to paint, kitchen lights turned on now.

Sometimes the texture of the paper still comes through, as do the lines of brushstrokes on lower layers.

Of course lighting affects mood. Color does as well. Despite what the neuroscientists claim, I don't think that's hardwired, I think it still has some culturally-bound factors. A lot of neuroscientists are not even aware that their own fundamental assumptions about what they observe are culturally-bound; unaware that their cultural bias is Western-scientific; as opposed to, for example, Inuit-mythic or Hindu-Buddhist-cosmological. Is a fish aware that it’s breathing water?

Color palette and language are not the same from culture to culture. What is held in common are the perceived colors of natural world objects. Red berries on forest plants around the world are poisonous often enough to humans to be of note. But there is no equivalent color in the northern Midwest to the color of young rice in the paddies, that unique yellow-green. So what we associate with those colors has at minimum some cultural input and conditioning with regards to how we interpret colors as emotions.

Yet I’m a North American, born on Turtle Island, and my roots for this kind of painting that I find myself doing are in Kandinsky and other branches of early Modernism, from the period before Modernism went ultra-rational, began to worship logical-positivism, and threw away all of its early vestiges of both irrationality and mysticism.

People forget that some of the key branches of early Modernism were deep explorations of the newly-theorized unconscious self, the realm of dreams and myths and archetypes; that got discarded in favor of rational utilitarianism. Not always an equal tradeoff. What the expressive color, the color of expression, in my painting means might mean what it means only to me, but as Kandinsky notes, if the experience of viewing the painting evokes an emotional, or mythopoetic, response in the viewer, all is good.

Laurie Anderson runs into Coldplay. Then 40s pop hits. A favorite slow movement from a Vivaldi cello concerto. Truly random music choices. The BBC Radio drama of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

Rest awhile. Make some more photos of the painting. Think about starting dinner.

Thursday, November 8
5:16 PM

I'm not remotely tired of photographing these paintings as I make them. It's not really about recording the process, more about watching change. Each working period yields a new painting. The painting you start with is not always like the painting you end with, and it might change several times during the process. Eventually it tells you when it's done, and you stop.

That's something a lot of my non-artist friends never seem to understand: listening to what the work tells you it wants. Non-artists all too often think art-making is all a conscious act of will, as though it were all planned out, pre-designed, engineered to the artist’s willful blueprint. Well, sometimes you do start out that way, but it almost never ends up exactly as you pre-visualized. It moves. It always has a will of its own. The artist doesn't control things as much as people think. There's a lot of intuition involved.

One of the things that makes a lot of current postmodern art so dry and emotionally flat, and often frankly boring, is precisely a lack of intuition, with too much conscious intent and control. Trust me, I've worked in advertising art and commercial design and illustration, where you are in fact working to a goal, an outline, a conscious intent. Art with a purpose, art intended to pass on a specific message. It's often still creative and fun, and sometimes even nuances, but it's not art that’s meant to endure. It’s meant to be seen once, clearly convey its message, then the reader moves on. Most art you see in magazines is like that. You don't desire to keep coming back to it, to look at it again and absorb it.

When I look at a Jeff Koons piece, for example, it's often very clever and flashy and interesting, really eye-catching and fun. But once I've seen it, I’m done with it. There’s no lingering. Looking at it a second time, I shrug. There is no desire to come back. It's commercial illustration writ large, and what it lacks is precisely that emotional intuition (Kandinsky again) that I find myself seeking from my own paintings. I don't tire of looking at them, or making photos of them.

Probably most artists feel this way about their own work, so it's hardly a revelation, I imagine. If it didn’t interest you as an artist, you wouldn’t return to it, or to doing it.

October Project. A movie soundtrack. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Cowpunk ditties. "I hate to wake up sober in Nebraska." Music rolling on.

Pause to make dinner. Ravel solo piano music.

Friday, November 9
11:45 AM

Now we lighten up the colors again, so they emerge from the dark, glowing. Red glows over green.

Thinking ahead, planning ahead, envisioning in advance with the mind’s eye, what photographer Edward Weston called “pre-visualization,” is something I learned to do years ago as a graphic designer. You keep the goal in mind. You can hit the mental undo button to go back a step if necessary. You visualize what the end result will look like, and you approach that visualization even if you never quite match it in the real world. Imagination remains more malleable, in the end.

Working in layers on a painting, adding layers over layers, is for me analogous to working in layers in Photoshop. You know what's above and below, what masks and what shows through, how they interact. There is a similar sense of happy accident, the indeterminacy I often like to see in all the art I do. Being surprised as the artist is one of the things I love about the process. Discovery. The mystery of an unplanned but even better outcome.

Thinking about this further, layers are natural to me because they are prominent in my music, and the music I play and listen to. All those years spent playing Javanese gamelan, which is layered cycles of melody and heterophony. The influence of the Indonesian music I've studied and played on how I play in a jazz or rock combo setting, in which I also tend to think in layers. Avant-garde classical music and jazz, often structured similarly. I'm thinking of Steve Reich's cyclic gradual process music, and also more recently of Nik Bartsch and his ensemble Ronin, in which the tension between layers of melody and rhythmic cycles is integral to the music.

The underlayers of the painting show through in parts, in textures underneath, even when the pigments are covered over or mostly so. Remnants. Memories. Little bits of the past. Every painting is a history as well as a fact.

Saturday, November 10
12:34 PM

Recently acquired the special edition DVD of Ed Harris' movie "Pollock," which is an excellent biopic about the artist Jackson Pollock, unsentimental and deeply moving. It’s not a psychoanalysis of Pollock, it’s a presentation of his life. The most interesting and intense parts of the movie are the scenes in which we see the artist at work, creating. To do this role, Harris learned how to paint. He built a studio behind his house, and began to learn. The paintings seen in the film are re-creations of Pollocks, made by the film studio art department, but also worked on by Harris on camera. This is one of the most realistic depictions of a painter in the films: there’s no faking it.

Watching Harris paint as Pollock painted, in character but also DOING the paintings is enthralling. You can see that the actor has absorbed how the painter moved, physically, which gives a strong clue to how he painted. This is a simply terrific film. It inspires me to take up the brushes again today and work some more.

Painting is becoming something that, once I've started doing it, becomes self-sustaining. I still have trouble with all the labels around art: painter, artist, etc. I'd rather than just do it than have a label I have to wear like a name badge. So I still don't think of myself as A Painter, I just paint. I’m happy to say I paint, and leave it at that.

Monday, November 12
2:07 PM

This painting is now finished. No title yet, though I do know it’s part of the aurora borealis series. Call it simply “Aurorae” for now. I’ll put it up on the bedroom wall with the other painting, and continue to grow the cluster of paintings there, adding color to my room’s most empty wallspace.

Finished. Rather, I don't know what else to do with it. The end result is a bit darker than I had envisioned, nonetheless it's saturated with rich color. There are a lot of details here I like. Brushstrokes like waves of light and air.

Poet Paul Valery once opined, "A poem is never finished, only abandoned." I feel some of that now. This painting is abandoned. I feel the need to go on, to work on other paintings. To do something new and unknown. To improvise.

In painting as in poetry, there comes a point after which more revision won't fix anything, and often makes things worse. I once was boggled to hear that a poet was teaching her writing workshop students that she sometimes revised a poem sixty times. I frankly find that either unbelievable or pathetic. If it takes that long to "fix" a piece of art, chances are you never will. Either it has defeated you already, or you've gotten stuck.

I don't feel that way about this painting, it just feels done. Abandoned, maybe, or perhaps it’s just telling me that it’s done. I don't know what else to do with it. I'm satisfied. I'm ready to move on to the next piece.

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Friday, November 02, 2012

The Day After the Day of the Dead

Some of these guys look a little hungover. Too much fun the night before, maybe. Or blood.

When I went out this morning to start taking down my decorations, I found someone had put a Peanut M&M in the mouth of one of the hanging skeletons. So even the hungry ghosts got fed last night.

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