Monday, February 6, 2012

Art Noir

Ink and watercolor in large moleskine
You may think as you read this post  that it is about literature and not about art.  But it's all about art.  Be patient with me, and the art will come, I promise.  I just want to share some gems I have found along the way.

I admire good writers for much the same reason as I admire good artists - their ability to create worlds or to reflect this world in new and personal ways.

Every November I go to the Miami Book Fair International to hear author after author reading and discussing their works. During the last festival I was excited that Robert Pinsky was scheduled to be a part of a panel.  He is an amazing poet, a former Poet Laureate of the United States and recipient of many awards.  I think his poem "Shirt" is a masterpiece of writing, and love the way in which he reads it.  (You can hear the poem here being read by him, and can follow along with the words if you'd like.)

Ink and watercolor in large moleskine

I'd seen various writers speak during the day, some of whom would require tickets because of crowds that massive auditoriums could not accommodate. I had trouble finding Mr. Pinsky, though.  On the verge of giving up I finally found him and the rest of the panel in a large white tent to the side of the fair, near the entrance.

There were 20 people inside the tent at the most, maybe less.  The vast tent was nearly empty.  Massive blowers were running during the whole presentation, for air conditioning I suppose, which made it very difficult to hear.

The panel consisted of some writers represented in a book called  New Jersey Noir.  All of the writers and most of the audience members were from New Jersey.  I am not from New Jersey, of course, which made me something of an anomaly.  I also differed from the other audience members in that I was busy sketching Mr. Pinsky and the other accomplished poet on the panel, Gerald Stern.

I have not yet read the book - I plan on doing so.  Apparently, though, Joyce Carol Oates, the compiler of the collection of works in New Jersey Noir defined "noir" in terms of crime and New Jersey's colorful history of mayhem and murder.  Robert Pinsky disagreed.

And this is where I did a double-take.  When he started talking, I thought I was listening to an artist.  He talked about how the world around us contains not only what we would think of as classic beauty.  A representation of the world in that way would be incomplete.  Before I go on, I do not remember any of his examples except one (half of my brain was sketching and I took no notes); that single example was that the authors had to fight the big blowers to speak in the tent we were in - that was part of the overall sense of place and time that we were experiencing.

A building has cracks, discoloration on its walls, uneven texture, the creak of un-oiled hinged doors opening and closing, the musty smell in the hallway, the dim lighting in one corner, the bright light in another.  A paper may be taped to a window at an uneven angle.  It may be torn or bent. A person may have hair unevenly strewn, one eye closing further than the other, hair in the nostrils, and puffy cheeks.

There is the ordinary with the sublime, the everyday matters -  it is the fullness of the picture, warts and all, that is worth conveying.

The podcast "99% Invisible" had a short episode on the sound of escalators - how they were part of the soundscape of Washington:

“There’s a secret jazz seeping from Washington’s aging Metro escalators - those anemic metal walkways that fill our transit system…they honk and bleat and squawk” -Chris Richards, “Move along with the soundtrack of Metro’s screechy, wailing escalators” The Washington Post, 01/14/11

It is our role as artists to notice these things.

You can hear the episode here if you'd like.  It's worth it.

Or during my trip to Georgia Tech in Atlanta, one of my favorite finds was this plaque on the tiled wall behind the toilet in the bathroom:

I have never, anywhere else, seen #1 and #2 referred to formally.  Have you?

Mr. Pinsky's remarks reflected my view that Imperfect is far more interesting than Perfect, and, as far as I am concerned,even more perfect than Perfect -  more complete. 

Mr. Pinsky is a poet, but he thinks like an artist.  He is an artist in the broadest sense, and I am sure it is true. A writer is an artist, a musician, an actor - all of these are artists.  I would prefer, however, that they classify all of these folks under a different heading, so that I can actually find material about artists and not about mimes, for example.  A pet peeve of mine.  I will look for a podcast on artists and find a band, for example.

We are as alike as we are dissimilar, we artists, whatever creative engagement we may have.  Check out, for example the fifth member of this band.  (If you can't stand the wait, she first appears at 38 seconds).  This is how it should be, don't you think?

Perfect imperfection indeed!


  1. Imperfect is the truth --as is unfinished. A state of continuous evolution seems to be the the path we're on. --Then sometimes I wonder, after a couple of glasses of wine, evolving towards what? Perfection? One would hope, BUT
    "Being and nothingness" pops to mind! Nietzsche I think? My son the philosophy PhD could fill us in on that. As a young woman I chased perfection--bad toilet training I suspect--now I can't run that fast.I don't have to. Perfect imperfection is ideal--and always humorous in a macabre sort of way.

    Robert you eye your art critically, but I enjoy your imperfect portraits. Mr. Pinsky in particular makes me smile. The look on his face
    is pleasantly receptive to whatever he was hearing over the blowers.

  2. Thanks so much for the link to Pinsky reading "Shirt". I agree...a masterpiece! I fought tears in a couple places..for one thing my Mother was a genius seamstress..and (as in the poem), she took pride in every stitch, but there was no one to congratulate her much over it. She had a relative who had worked for Brooks Brothers (suits) and she always said putting fabric together was in her genes. (The sewing gene avoided me). Your sketches are wonderful. The writers made good models! I have seen that signage before, and I had the same #! and #2 are "mainstream" now! The video is great. I had to watch it at the bigger size to see what she was doing. This is a fabulous post!

  3. Since reading your post this am I have been travling all over the place to sites---listening and soaking up a lot of good stuff...
    I saw connections I had not noticed before---and thank you for posting today !

  4. This is a fabulous post, Don. I remember those escalator sounds in D.C. (Heck, I remember the streetcar sounds in D.C. in early 60s.) On my first flight in a small plane I was frightened because I heard hymns and thought for sure we were going down. No one else looked scared so I realized I was the only one hearing church music in the engine sounds.

    I have bookmarked the site for poetry.

    These watercolors are some of your best work; I think the authors would appreciate seeing these.

    I think everyone notices these small things but it is the artist who studies and appreciates them. I'm glad you had your camera with you in that bathroom in GA.

  5. Wonderful portraits , for a very though provoking post. "Imperfection" in art is what I like best, seeing the "artist's hand" in works. Anyway, I'm off to follow your links!

  6. I could have sworn I commented on this yesterday.... disappeared into cyberspace... I LOVE your people portraits. You are a very interesting person that's for sure. I have seen a toilet note like that at a park here in SC... thought it was funny too... but didn't take a photo of it... I can just image you clicking away at the sign in the men's room LOL.

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  8. Hello Dan,
    As usual, you have created some great artwork. I love your sketches of people and their portraits. Interesting site -
    I too could not work out what the woman was doing until I saw it in youtube. I wonder what the paintings turned out like.
    Another great blog mate.

  9. I concur with the others that this is a GREAT post. Thank you for taking us with you to the panel discussion. I would love to have been there experiencing it with you. Both of your sketches are wonderful, IMHO, some of your best. Your mention of the "secret jazz" in the Metro escalators made me think of another group of artists, The BeeGees. The riff in their song "Jive Talkin'" was inspired by the sound of their wheels driving over a bridge.


  10. I used to spend a lot of time looking for perfection then I realised with the wisdom of age that it doesn't actually exist. Now I live happily in my imperfection.
    Great sketches, especially Mr Pinsky and the background you used.

  11. I find literature is a form of art too, just like music or painting... I just wish I could write, but cant, not good at it at all (just have to stick to my paints : )
    I finally was able to hear the poem, strong words and lines, nice to hear his voice and it fits to the face you drew. Great sketches!!!

    And for the #1 & #2 flushes, great eh!!! Many coffee shops around here has them (look a bit different). They are a great idea. And I love it when I see a great sign, like one here in town that says "2 hour parking max, no stopping or parking, all cars will be towed" Sure makes one think twice to park there.

    Great work as always Dan, and keep that camera with you (you just never know what you will find next: ) !!!

  12. The people you draw always look like everyday people we might all find in our own lives although we live states and countries apart, that is why I love looking at your blog!

  13. nice review, dan. there are so many creative people out there who think and see the world with the same passion. Really, it wasn't that long ago when the people of the Renaissance embraced all the arts - painting, poetry, music, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, philosophy. Everything had equal value and importance because without one you couldn't create the other.

    Oh and I do like the loo sign as well. I particuarly like that the handle is protected from germs... coz we wouldn't want the handle to come down with anything nasty! hee, hee.

  14. This post is a treasure, Dan. I am a teacher of English . . . I love literature. I adore poetry. And four years ago, when I first began sketching a bit, I noticed how much the heightened awareness of my surroundings because of it enriched my enjoyment of the things I read, and how that was all interrelated. Everything richer . . . fuller. It's amazing!! Your wonderful portraits are a case in point!!!

  15. Nice drawing =) I think you should totally do more portraits. (no I don't read a lot, and I don't know who these people are) but yeah... more portraits Dan!

  16. Hi Dan, Most artistically written! Fun how you can relate seemingly different events, times and places. Yes, I have seen that sign before, reminds me of grade school. I do so appreciate your drawings of people! Fun!

  17. I was so pleased with these comments that were e-mailed to me or posted with EDM, that I wanted to include them here so I would remember them forever:

    Nymph Du Pave wrote: "Fantastic post. Love your small sketches and your writing. That poem was terrific. Thanks for taking the time to write this!"

    Mary O. Martin wrote: "Dan I read your post and tried to formulate a comment, but found that words
    failed me (fancy that!). One of your best of all time in my opinion and it has sent me searching out more work by Pinsky, as well as back to reading some of the poetry I've collected over the years, myself. Thanks!!"

    Carole wrote: "Dan, I shared your blog with a small poetry group I belong to. Those who looked at it raved about how wonderful it is."

    Jane Young wrote: "Hi Dan, I've thought that for quite a few years....imperfect is much more interesting. Thanks for sharing."

    And thank you!

  18. As you can see I had a lot of help with this post from all of the very talented folks I referenced. I am glad the references have enriched your lives - they have certainly enriched mine.

    Thank you so much for your comments - I really cannot respond to all of you, but lack of a response does not mean that your comment is any less appreciated, it just means that I have nothing unique to say about your thoughts:

    Linda - "Being and nothingness," The subject none of us want to think about too hard, true though it might be. (See my response to Hallie, lol).

    Celeste - I am so glad you were touched. I am proud to say that my grandfather was a tailor.

    Captain - Interesting?! Why thank you!

    Winna - This is why I love to share these gems that I find - thank you so much for letting me know!

    Hallie - Such an interesting story about the plane. Once, a long time ago, I was reading Pinsky's translation of "Dante's Inferno" - and thought I saw Death outside the door! True story. It was a homeless person. Nevertheless I did not finish the book, it spooked me out (an excellent translation).

    Thank you, all of you who liked and commented on the ink and watercolor portraits! I rarely post someone where you can actually look to see what they look like - god forbid! :)

    And Ok Captain and Hallie and Mari - I did not have a camera with me. It was my cell phone! (Er, does that make it better?)

  19. I read "Pittsburgh Noir" (it's a series of "Noir" books being published, I believe) and it was decent. I agree with you about Pinsky. I've always liked him. Did you read his translation of Dante's Inferno? Very interesting!