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Living and Painting in the Layers

Updated: Apr 10, 2019

In his poem "The Layers," Stanley Kunitz talks of having "walked through many lives."

"Live in the layers," he advises, knowing he is "not done with [his] changes."

I have always had this intense interest in "layers." I've "walked through many lives" and have more changes to come. I layer experiences in drawings and in paintings, but at times I arrange paintings in other ways--choosing what to put in, what to leave out, catching and holding the metaphors.

The artist John Lees paints in layered thick paint. He has worked on a single canvas for as long as 30 years. Art critic Holland Cotter described Lees' work as "intense, surprisingly graceful, with clotted and encrusted brown pigments that look as if they were lifted straight from the earth, but packed with references and energies beyond the naturalistic." Th e images I saw online are beautiful, layered in time.

Recently, I read "An Artist's Archeology of the Mind: How Peter Sacks draws power from the hidden layers of his canvases," by Joshua Rothman, (The New Yorker, March 25, 2019).

Of course I was intrigued by that word "layers" from the start. In my own painting, I'd also thought of it as "journaling," layering life experiences. Where else to put them? The process came naturally.

As I read the article a number of times, I had to ask myself repeatedly what it was, exactly, that I was connecting with. My life is not and was not the same as Sacks'. No one's is.

I had always cared about my subject matter transcending my own self, being accessible, painting what others might recognize and feel. In Sack's paintings, even beyond his extraordinary journey on the way to starting to paint at age 49, they are not about him alone.

Peter Sacks was born in South Africa. The article notes he has had a varied and fascinating career as a highly-regarded poet and literary critic. His book in the latter field won him tenure at Johns Hopkins University. He journeyed from being a competitive swimmer in school, to a surfer, to pre-med, to political science, to anti-apartheid activism, to a scholarship at Princeton, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, a five-month walk through South America, to Yale for a Ph.D., an English professor, a poet--to a painter. His experiences ares said to have "fused and compounded" and only later "transformed into art." He brings to painting astounding variety and depth. It is hardly surprising to read that he came to this art with a "fully formed and dauntingly complex aesthetic." How could he not?

My own journey is not Sacks'. Mine is a different journey from another country/island, on a less-than-straight path, which many women live. "Fused and compounded?" A woman I know talks of "composting" her challenges amid rich experiences. It all fits.

Rothman describes Sacks' work, in a process that can last years, as "archeological, and sedimentary...he layers, he digs, he effaces, he paints in texts and fabrics...creating, burying, burning, uncovering."

I did not efface my paintings. I had to come to grips with layering--what I was willing to reveal--letting some layers go, painting more expression, struggling to find something beautiful, something strong inside.

Despite sometimes harrowing subject matter, Sack's wife, the poet Jorie Graham, says of his paintings, "They're so beautiful." Sacks, in his writings, quotes Zbigniew Herbert, "Too easily we came to believe beauty does not save." Even with difficult subjects, it can. Beauty, surely, is one of the great challenges in art. Sacks' paintings are "ravishingly beautiful," said Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art. And they're "global, in the best sense of the word. Their sweep, from history to literature to world events, is astounding."

Sacks left South Africa through "a door that closed behind him," Graham noted. "He does not feel at home in any particular place." In fact, his book, The English Elegy, begins with Wordsworth: "a poet is affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present." But although the door closed, it is all still there. Again, a feeling I recognize in myself, knowing so appreciatively how long it took to live in a new place, while still missing my early formative home.

The artist Paul Anthony Smith, of African-Jamaican heritage, asks (NYTimes 04/05/19), "When you come to a new country [USA], do you become a hybrid of your surroundings? Or do you stay who you are within your culture?" In Smith's art, he captures "the rhythm, the vibe, the culture, and retains those spirits." I'd like to think that however I paint, those spirits remain in my art, even unconsciously. Sacks' culture was fragmented; there was the discovery that as a white man in South Africa, even as an anti-apartheid activist, he was part of the problem. "There was no escaping a sense of complicity." He remembers his childhood as "overwhelmingly beautiful" but "overwhelmingly atrocious." His work reflects injustice and violence...and beauty.

For me, coming from a tiny island, with my heritage of English and Spanish, a bit of French and Welsh thrown in--an island majority African, then white, Portuguese, and Native American--fitting into Bermuda culture was confusing. Moving to this country, I have been more able to observe from afar and find my own place, but there is loss...of my island, in addition to realization of its racial history, then and now, with greater losses that followed within my family. I did not grow up under apartheid, but in a haunting rigid racial segregation that rightly demands awareness and redress, a raw contrast to beauty. I painted what Sacks describes as "little landscapes of my own silence," witnesses to desired healing.

Sacks writes movingly about his struggles over loss and healing through a creative life. From his great personal silences when he wrote poetry, he argues, "Elegiac poetry memorializes and revitalizes; an elegiac poem doesn't merely describe loss...instead, it is like a ritual...that helps the living return to the stream of life, that helps poets accept the continued hesitance of their own creativity. Paralyzed by loss, they are inclined to grieve in silence. They must learn to speak again." Through painting, he has. Regarding his change from poetry to painting, Sacks says, "Ultimately, the reason I'm not writing poems is because I can't express whatever just happened there," (scorching part of a painting's surface).

Rothman then refers to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," where the pilgrim "opens his mind to snatches of prayer, song, and poetry, and thinks 'these fragments I have shored against my ruins.'" They do. Painting does it too. For years Sacks had buried his experiences, and "he has hidden layers in his paintings even more over time, in a ritualized form of art-making," undoubtedly "against his ruins." Yes , as Rothman notes, it would be a mistake to think his painting reflects only his personal journey. It seems Sacks' art allows him to live a more whole and inclusive life, not just of his own experiences, but those of the world at large.

Listing Sacks' lessons learned, Rothman reflects. on: "the importance of ritual, the power of erasure, the difference between burying something so it could never be found and creating something new, layer by layer. It would survive. by shaping the layers to come." But I don't believe one can erase. Sacks buries but allows for that layer to be dug up and exposed, repeatedly. Is this "power" Or healing?

This is the tension that exists in Sacks' paintings, as he layers and digs and exposes and builds again. Underlying elements always shape the new, whether we are consciously aware or not. Sacks seems saved by creating, immersed in the journey of each painting.

I start a painting, I have a plan. It turns another way. Always.

Anytime we layer, in oils, or in watercolor too, all is still there, but then subsumed, buried, maybe somewhat exposed, adjusted. Yet the light shines through. The challenge to create beauty continues. For me, the profound need to be closer to nature, approximating the intense experience I had growing up in Bermuda, and its healing aspects, has had me studying and painting botanical art--many layers of thin paint--with a longstanding desire to also combine this intensity of detail with the looseness of the way I drew and painted before.

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