This week, I’ve been in Denver for a preview of the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art designed by architect Jim Olson. It’s my first exposure to the work of Vance Kirkland (worth a Wiki and a visit: the museum opens on March 10), and it’s the most extensive decorative arts collection on display nationwide. (An international peer would be the Victoria & Albert in London.)
Three things strike me about Kirkland’s work: his brilliant use of color (Kirkland was synesthetic — he could actually “see” colors when listening to music, and that’s what he painted); his abstract expressionism and the “dot” paintings that defy genre; and his use of space—his large canvases, their subject matter (he painted imagined celestial phenomena from outer space) and the physical hoisting of himself into the air using straps hanging from the ceiling of his studio.
Kirkland employed layers of both watercolors and oils in his works, an unusual mix to start. Then, he hoisted himself above the canvas and applied dots of varying sizes and colors using wooden dowels dipped in paint. (Versus Pollock, who dripped paint onto his canvases.) Flying above allowed Kirkland to apply the dots without the paint dripping or splattering, and it granted him access to the middle and top of the works despite his dimunitive stature (he was 5-foot-two.) Kirkland then used wooden skateboards beneath his canvases to move them back and forth as he worked.
I’ve been looking at Kirkland’s art for two days now, and I can’t get enough of it. His colors and forms are mesmerizing. The paintings work like Rohrschach ink blots: every time I look, I see something different that tracks back to subliminal nuances of my current mental state. I’ve begun to free associate colors with different story lines and characters in my novel.
Under my New Year’s mantra of “MAKE SPACE,” the past two months have been both creatively liberating yet sparse in terms of diversity in that endeavor. Picture a snowy, white meadow with a few brown sticks and twiggy trees poking through. There’s life under there, but it’s hidden and quiet on the surface.
So far, I have written the first two chapters and am plugging away at the third. My two main goals for February were, “Do not volunteer for anything,” and, “Just write, man.” Despite temptation, I accomplished both and, frankly, I felt relieved that there wasn’t anything more to do. This is the first time in my writing life that I don’t have multiple pieces in progress at once. Usually, I’ll work on something and get inspired (ahem: distracted) by random ideas; it’s strange to feel so calm and focused on this ONE THING. Now, my little inspirations fuel the vignettes that make up each chapter, and my Aha! moments help me figure out a character’s backstory or eventual fate. But that’s it. One project. One story.
Seriously, this is weird. This is not me as a writer.
My focused sense of calm is something I’ve observed as if it’s not happening to or within me. It’s like watching a separate person work. I keep waiting to freak out because I’m so far away from having anything close to a finished piece, or for the moment when I decide to give up when I don’t know what happens next in the story. I’m leery of overwriting (I’m nearly at 40,000 words) yet there’s no way that I’m editing a thing at this point. And I used to be the girl who fell into the trap of editing essays before she was done with the first draft — how is this me?
Somehow, each morning when I wake up at 4:55 am to write, there’s just enough ink in the well to get me to 6:00 am, and there is enough yearning left at 6:01 am for me to want to return the next morning. I think about the story and characters constantly, jotting notes and questions that make me want to go deeper. Usually, this “romance” phase revs up during revision rather than drafting. Yet another thing I don’t understand and haven’t paused to investigate, lest I break the magic spell.
Then, there’s research. My story is set in Venice, and I find myself tumbling down rabbit holes of the past and present; this is territory that I haven’t traversed in either essay or fiction writing (other than research of my own past.) It reminds me of the fodder I’d mine for critical papers in college which, while fascinating, tended to lead me astray into endless tunneling and a heaping of facts so innumerable as to be impossible to choose between them. I came to see research as a distraction and a waste of time. Yet, here I am ordering books on the history of Venice.
Kirkland’s process has made me see that I’m learning to break my own rules in order to synsethize something authentic and inspired rather than literal and controlled. In these early chapters, I’m laying down a mix of base layers of history and fiction, and I’m getting ready to hoist myself above them in order to make something abstract and expressionist, immersive and colorful. The size of the canvas — my first novel — feels bigger than I am able to cover on my own two feet, hence the narrative scaffolding that I’ve adopted to hold me at a fruitful distance.
In looking at my favorite of Kirkland’s paintings, the one that reminds me of a Bengal tiger, something occurred to me. The so-called “magic” that I haven’t wanted to question or disturb is the instinct that I’ve developed as an artist over the last nine years. It’s less hocus-locus and more practice and failure — a body of experimental work — that has finally given me my 10,000 hours upon which to stand, and continue to build higher. Will this novel be a masterpiece? Who knows. It’s just where I’m at, and it’s a level above where I was.
Looking at the chronological development of his work, I wonder if Kirkland doubted himself at any point in his process. We don’t hear of this as part of his legend. At the start of his career, he had plenty of teachers and critics denounce his paintings, which were more literal in form. They particularly picked at his pre-surrealist application of color. But he went on painting and developing his visual voice until it become something undefinable — something felt in the heart and the gut. If Kirkland did struggle with negative commentary, it didn’t stop him. In fact, where he leaned in the most strongly against convention is where he was the most imaginative. He made space to do his own thing.
That is a lesson that every artist, no matter her media, must learn for herself. And only by making and doing do we learn.