Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Art and the Hard Freeze

This spring in Southern Kentucky has been the most titanic battle between the seasons that I have seen in my lifetime. We had three weeks of eighty-degree temps in March (way too warm), which set flowers and trees bursting to life early. Then April turned, and we dropped straight into sub-freezing temperatures. Have you ever seen a baby hosta exposed to a nineteen-degree night? It ain’t pretty. It’s mush. I saved my peonies with blankets held down by concrete blocks and bricks. Covering at night and uncovering when it warmed up each day for the past week and a half. They’re a little flattened, but they’re alive and the flower buds are intact. A couple of times I got up late, tore out of the house for work and had to call my father-in-law for help. Bless the man, he drove ten miles to my house to uncover my peonies so they could have the warmth of the mid-day sun.

In my growth as a writer I’ve come to understand the importance of exposing myself, regularly, to all kinds of art, and in particular, things of great beauty, whether natural or manmade. Things that make my soul soar. (Peony blooms, and their fragrance, do that for me.) Things that spark pure joy and that lift me above my current circumstance or state of mind. Things that take me into “the zone” where I can create stories that are larger than life.

Last summer I viewed an exhibit at a Nashville museum that included six Monets. I went twice, and although there were paintings from famous artists spanning six centuries, the second time I went most specifically to look again at those Monets. I maintained my civility through most of the visit, but I kept circling back to look at one in particular. I can't remember the name of it, but it was a flood in Paris. I stood and just stared. I was awestruck by the power and the emotion that it evoked in me. When nobody was looking, I surreptitiously blotted the corners of my eyes with my sleeve. Yep. That old painting made me cry.

In my search for ways to get at and maintain my creative self, I take a semi-regular watercolor class. The instructor is a gifted artist, and she’s also gifted at encouragement. She helps me get better without ever crushing my spirit. This is what the baby artist needs. I’ve worked in oils and acrylics enough to gain some basic skills, but watercolor is harder for me. I have to be spontaneous and work fast. Yet at the same time I have to have a plan because we don’t use white. Whatever I want white, I have to leave white from the beginning. Not an easy thing for Cassondra, the control freak. Through this process I’ve asked a lot of people the question, “What is real art?” Not just a basic definition, but what makes that Monet different from the oil paintings I did in high school? I could paint buildings and trees and water. But I could not make anybody cry. I’ve seen portfolios of my watercolor teacher’s work. Each painting is beautiful, but now and then I come to one and my reaction is “Oh! Look at THAT! Oh, my gosh.” And the interesting thing is, when other people view the portfolio, most of them stop at the same paintings. The teacher doesn’t have those paintings any more. They sold at their first showing. What makes them different?

Last week I ordered a book from Barnes & Noble. It was a book Jo and some of the other Romance Bandits had been discussing on our yahoo loop, the one Inara blogged about a couple of days ago, and it sounded really interesting. I sat down on Monday in the cafĂ© to read a bit, to see if I wanted to fork over the $24 price. It was obvious from our loop discussions and from what I read, that this author had very definite ideas about what is “real art” and what is not. And those ideas did not include the stuff I love to read—specifically romance or other genre fiction—stuff that allows my soul to soar and me to leave behind the mundane and sometimes painful life for a little while. Stuff that will make me cry—but because of the beauty of life, not because of the horror. After a couple of hours, I took the book back to the service desk and said, “Thank you, but this one is not for me.” You know, that author may well be right. Perhaps what I do—telling stories of suspense and the growth of love and a relationship that promises a happy ending—is not high art. And perhaps he’s wrong. Perhaps whatever causes my spirit to soar is art.

In truth, my question is still unanswered. But the bottom line is this. I’m a bit like the baby hostas at this point. I’m not a brand new writer, and there are few things that boost the unpublished spirit like a Golden Heart final. I know last year’s final boosted my spirit and confidence. But with contests and sometimes winning and sometimes losing, added to rejections and the politics of the business, my writers voice could still get crushed and frozen in the midst of it all. The last thing I need is to allow my inner spirit to be exposed to the hard, biting freeze of criticism that says what I do is not art and is therefore unworthy.

So if I’ve learned nothing else through the years of writing, and the questions about “what is art,” I have gained the spunk to nurture my inner writer—cover it and uncover it religiously and do my best to save those buds that will turn into explosions of story—just as I painstakingly covered and uncovered my peonies last week. If I don’t protect my spirit from those hard freezes, there won’t ever be a chance for somebody to look at my work and laugh or cry or hate or yearn or otherwise feel. Because that seems to be the common ground. If it makes a person feel deeply, it’s probably legitimate art. As artists, we have the choice to cover or uncover our hearts and our gifts when we’re ready. No hard freezes for me.


Anna Campbell said...

Cassondra, that was an absolutely beautiful post and left me wanting to storm the barricades of artistic prejudice then go out and glory in how perfect one rosebud can be. I really related to your story about the Monets. What is it that makes great art special? It's something. I went to a visiting art show at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney years and years ago. It was paintings owned by the people who set up the Readers Digest magazine, I think. Not a large exhibition and obviously paintings that these people have lived with and loved. Strange, you can tell that about a collection. Anyway, there was this small Renoir of strawberries in a blue and white bowl. Pretty unspectacular subject. Rather un-Renoiry in many ways, like a Renoir Cezanne, if that makes sense. But even after a dozen years, I can still close my eyes and see that painting. The red was like the reddest red you ever saw and in contrast to the Chinese bowl it was just perfect. I coveted that painting more than I've coveted nearly anything else I've ever seen. Why? I have no idea! And I don't even like strawberries! That's the magic, I guess.

Cassondra said...

I have looked and looked all over the web to find that painting. I'd love to post it here on the blog. But it must be one of his lesser known works. I do know that Monet supposedly painted it after a long period of grieving the death of his wife. He hadn't been painting at all, but the storm and the swollen flooded river out his window in Paris brought his creative soul back to life. There was movement in every brush stroke. I felt the power of the wind, the rain, and the rushing water. I still feel the rush of emotion just thinking about it. There is something magical about a work that can touch a soul so deeply. Although I'm inspired by it, I sometimes think I should go home and do my dishes and aspire to something a little less profound--like maybe sacking groceries at Kroger.

Aunty Cindy said...

Although I'm inspired by it, I sometimes think I should go home and do my dishes and aspire to something a little less profound--like maybe sacking groceries at Kroger.

Oh NO YOU DON'T! Mindless work will kill your creativity as sure as that hard freeze! I know it did MINE! So none of that kind of talk from you, my lil niece!

And I loved your story about painting with watercolors. According to my DH (he of the degree in Fine Arts), watercolor is the most difficult paint medium. He likes to tell the story of when he was an undergrad and taking his first class in watercolor. He slaved over each attempt and at the end of the week, when he turned in his portfolio of 5 whole paintings, his teacher said, "Very good, but you are never going to get better by doing five in five days. Go home and this weekend do 25 and bring them in to me on Monday." He said once the panic wore off, he did the 25 and he learned more in that weekend than he did the entire rest of the semester!

Reminds your old Aunty of one of her early creative writing teachers who said the first day of class, in perfect seriousness, "The first million words are the hardest." At the time, I choked. Then I rationalized that she MUST be joking. Now, all these years later, I see that she was right.

Aunty C
who was once almost kicked out of the MOMA in NYC because she was so mesmerized by Van Gogh's "Starry Night"

Trish Milburn said...

Great post, Cassondra. It is hard to keep hold of one's creativity and desire to create in the face of rejections and the realities of the business. But I guess it's inevitable when bottom-line business meets art.

Inara said...

Cassondra, if art is touching someone (and bringing a tear to their eye) then your post was definitely art. Thanks for articulating how I've been feeling lately. Fragile, worried about a hard freeze, needing a little extra love and tenderness, and still determined to grow...


jo lewis-robertson said...

Cassondra, what a beautiful extended metaphor your post was! jo

Caren Crane said...

It tickles me that people feel compelled to classify works as "art" or "not art". I agree that if a work moves you (even to anger or disgust), it has done its job. It takes talent to move people. I recall, when I was a less experienced writer, authors telling me it was a good thing to cause a vitriolic response in a contest judge. Better to get a strong reaction, they said, than none at all. I thought it was making lemonades from lemons at the time, but have come to understand they were dead-on. Although it's nice when the response is uproarious laughter rather than towering rage.