Embroider; i.e. learn how to see, and to see with needle and thread. Chat with artists about their work.* Observe artists.** Take the train to Dublin to attend art exhibitions and think about these objects as time-beings (see Ruth Ozeki); of late, the Chester Beatty Library, Lavinia Fontana, John Kindness. And on the train, take notes on whatever I’m reading or on fellow passengers or the passing landscape, and fantasize about a life lived on trains.
Without intending to write, write about the day’s events and conversations. Write about thoughts and feelings after I wake up, to give them a space before the exigencies of the everyday claim my attention and time. Write this post, in an effort to gather some momentum, to discern in words the shape of my life, each word a stitch in time. Sometimes not-writing is writing.
Any of these activities, even embroidery, might lead to something—not necessarily a breakthrough, nothing climactic, nothing that needs to announce itself—building up into what Sharon Olds calls “a huge archive of thinking and feeling”, what is necessary for poetry and more, for that nebulous thing called art, the coupling of research and emotion.
**For example, Anna and I discuss the encaustic painting technique she learned at a recent workshop. Pigment is added to melted beeswax and damar resin before it is applied to the painting’s surface. She shows me a few paintings she has made, really experiments, abstract and impressionistic. Painted on birch, they have lively surfaces, composed of layers of wax, so that certain strokes seem suspended, like insects in amber, ready to leap if freed. “It’s magic,” says Anna, “Alchemy.”
Looking at her paintings, I thought of the Fayum funerary portraits from the first to third centuries. I have never seen one in person, only in photographs or slides. What kind of layers lurk in them, which cannot be discerned in a photograph? To know the medium’s difficulty is to respect even more these works that appear as fresh as when they were first painted. As John Berger writes in an essay on the portraits, “[B]efore the greatest of them, one is aware of enormous painterly energy. The stakes were high, the margin narrow. And in art these are conditions which make for energy.”
And this energy is discerned in their immediacy and individuality, which is paradoxical, given that they are funerary portraits. And because they were meant for the grave, they address you in a way missing in eighteenth-century English society portraits or today’s images of faces. As Berger points out, they do not implore you to look at them, ”yet declar[e] themselves, and anybody who is looking at them, alive! They incarnate, frail as they are, a forgotten self-respect. They confirm, despite everything, that life was and is a gift.”
** For example, how artists organise their life around their work. Anna, having just sold the house she had renovated and lived in for 20-odd years, looks around her studio and says, “It was easy to let go. I’m at home here.”