Essay

The painter and the writer

JOANNA LOGUE HAS been responding to the landscape around her home, Essington Park, near Oberon on the western slopes of NSW, for about seven years. She has made earlier work from the urbanscapes and landscapes of her travels – for example, the Manhattan series of Central Park – but has more recently had a resistance to travel, sensing that by staying put she will travel further within her work, choosing to do what the French scientist Charcot once advised Freud: "Go over the same ground again and again, until it speaks to you." (One of my own favourite sayings.)

The landscape that Logue has been re-approaching over these years has spoken to her and Ambleside is a culmination of images that talks about what she describes as "a very private and personal experience" while being at the same time, as is all art, a public communication.

As a close friend over a number of years, I was present at her studio in Essington Park on and off while Logue was finishing her remarkable Ambleside a public commission for the World Square foyer. She was looking for a title for the work and tossed out the expression "universal landscape". I rather liked it but she thought it was too pretentious or what she might call "pointy headed". And anyhow the New Zealand artist, Carolyn Blackwell, has used it for a painting.

Ambleside is the map name of the property surrounding Essington Park that Logue walks over and looks out on – the surrounding hills, paddocks, ponds and forests. The name contains within it the suggestion of the universal. We were in her studio and laughed when I said that the title described what it was that people might do in the foyer of World Square – "amble" past the work and stand "beside" the work.

Logue and I have spent many hours as writer and painter talking about the correlations between our processes as practitioners. One of our first arguments was over the possibility of originality – whether Western art had exhausted it. I argued for infinite originality.

On one of the days when she had faith in the possibilities of originality, she said to me, "You can't force originality but if you respond in an honest way to your immediate surroundings, your hand will bring a unique quality to the work. Braque said that personal style is that which one cannot do otherwise."

All her mature work is landscape and there is an absence of any figure – animal or human – in her paintings.

Yet, there is another paradox in landscape painting: two people are present in every landscape painting. There is the painter's sensibility or emotional presence in the imagery and behind that, the undepicted hand of the painter at the end of the brush.

And then there is the viewer – the second figure – standing forever on the edge of the landscape both when in an actual landscape and while viewing an art landscape (our toes not showing). Of course, that is, if a landscape painting is ever about "landscape" or botany.

 

WHAT THE WRITER chooses to write about or the painter chooses to paint is a layered decision not altogether accessible to analysis and containing deeply personal motivations usually of no interest to those who ultimately respond to the work.

That is, this deep, deep motivation that leads a writer or painter to a "subject" is artistically irrelevant to the relationship between the work and the responder (although, as responders, we are always hungry for personal details and connections to those who create works we admire and are endlessly inquisitive about their personal motivations, irrelevant or not).

What, then, can we say about landscape both in writing and in painting? Why this particular landscape? Would any landscape have done? And what can we say about "story" in painting?

Why write about this subject? Would any subject do? Strangely, the answer for me is now, yes. I suspect now that any subject will do, although this would not have been my position in my younger, more obsessive days. I am overwhelmed by things that consciously I would love to write about yet I know enough about the writing process also to know that a story will evolve from just about anything into which I begin to delve creatively – more curiously, any subject into which I am invited or commissioned by others to delve.

Logue thinks this is not the case for her. In 2003, she spent three weeks travelling around the countryside of Wales with the idea of making a body of work. It didn't happen. About this she said, "Curiously, even though I found the landscape to be beautiful and stirring – I couldn't quite connect to it. It seemed foreign or I seemed detached and had trouble finding a visual language to describe what I was seeing. I realised I had learned the landscape at home – the particular sounds, the dryness and the light – and this familiarity enabled a truer approach."

At first glance, a novel or story is a creation of verbal narrative, but it has to be remembered that written stories are usually rich in landscape description (while editing Best Australian Stories 2004 I often groaned at the number of stories that began with a weather report) and many stories and novels still begin with a landscape description. The writer paints with words.

In reverse, it could be said that the painter is telling a story, as story writers are telling landscape.

I don't want to force this symmetry between writer and painter and landscape and story too far. We should be precise in how we use the term "story" here. There is in some paintings the intention to suggest a story – the painting of a particular shipwreck (but does it, ultimately, become the painting of the universal shipwreck?); there is the story the viewer is led to, say, by the artist who authorises his or her viewers to weave tales around the work; there is the other story that the viewer invents around the painting whether the painter wants it or not; and then there is the "story" of the historical, or technical origin of the work; or the essayist's story, say, as I am doing now; and finally, the critical "story" – the words that come to surround it in published interpretations of the work.

 

LOGUE SEEKS A conception for a series of paintings or a single major work by trawling in the landscape by motor vehicle, which means that the vehicle window is her first tentative framing of the landscape. This is followed by walking in the landscape, where she begins to document sections of the terrain photographically using a Canon EOS 300, with a zoom lens, which she manipulates so the view becomes out of focus. The camera becomes a sketchbook and this is where she makes her first denaturing, or as I prefer to describe it, renaturing of the landscape.

Back in her studio, this photographic sketchbook, once developed into 76 x 127mm matt prints, is again renatured even more tightly by using different-sized, hand-cut white cardboard frames or templates that she lays onto the photographs to concentrate the image down to essential shapes. This composition is then drawn onto the canvas – blocked out in another set of rectangles – and the painting process begins. The image passes through five rectangular resizings and reshapings – the vehicle window, the camera viewfinder, the printed photograph, the white mini-frames and finally into the rectangle of painting itself.

We both use 3x5 cards, which we carry with us at all times, and keep beside our beds, for note taking and, in her case, occasional sketches – I gave her her first Levenger leather card wallet. In her process, it is her camera that most resembles the role of my note cards.

By comparison, as a writer, working on, say, my two novels, Grand Days and Dark Palace, I entered a historical "landscape" full of fog and confusion and a massive mountain range of archival detail – all of which was gradually reduced from kilometres of archive files down to selected folders of files, and then down to my note cards (about 7,000 for Grand Days, for example), which then became stories that I started to write from the cards, and then revised down, down, to a small assembly or fragment, a story-incident, which I sensed would be both a historically precise recreation of a point-in-time (or more precisely, an imagined recreation of a point-in-time inspired by the earlier archival recording of that point-in-time) brought alive through story – reduced to a frame – and which will then carry all the multi-various evocations a story can carry.

In lectures I have given on the interaction of historical research and fiction I have likened my work as a storyteller who is using archival material to the way an artist, such as Logue, sketches or takes in glimpses of the infinite landscape, or in my case, of history. In comparison, the historian or scholar works more as the geologist would work with landscape, doing hugely detailed analysis of a fragment of history, which throws its light in another way.

 

SOME WRITERS LIKE to use the painter's statement that the first mark on the canvas is the mark that matters creatively – the genesis mark – that the first correct brush stroke will suggest the next brush stroke and so on through to the completion of the painting.

Hemingway probably had this in mind. He was not only one of the writers who observed the process of writing most closely but was also curious about painters and how they work, as was Patrick White.

Hemingway talked about the writer finding the "first honest sentence", which, if found, will set in motion the whole work and guarantee its integrity. Logue believes in the critical importance of the first mark.

But in the imperfect chaos of creativity we do make false starts and we have to go back and search again for that first honest mark. Sometimes we can't find it and we have to abandon the work altogether and start afresh or burn it.

Frustratingly, as Logue and I agree, there are few rules in the making of imaginative work that are 100 per cent reliable.

 

WHAT AS A writer, I would call "revision", Logue would describe as "revisiting","scratching back" a canvas, which, as with the word revision, is too blunt a term for what is a long and delicate and sometimes agonising – and always hugely demanding – part of creation.

Young writers have much trouble accepting that revision is the most important part of imaginative work. They want desperately for it to be "right the first time" (as older writers we also hope for this, too, just as desperately and as futilely). It never is.

It is not only getting it right. The revising is a way of thinking and feeling and to a degree, the more we revise the deeper we go into the work.

In her painterly revising, Logue brings about a further, deeper, renaturing of her image on the canvas (or, more recently, linen). Even so, despite the extent of the renaturing that has already occurred, the image she first creates is still subliminally botanical, sometimes starkly skeletal, raw, energetic.

I have often said to her that both the photographic images she makes and the initial painted sketches are themselves "works of art". To me they seem desirable visual expressions and often do not seem to me to be at all "unfinished" but, of course, I cannot share the inner, ultimate, destination she has for the image that lies subconsciously dormant in her mind.

She then begins the arduous scratching back, paring down and refiguring, investing weeks of herself into the marks she creatively engineers into the paint using the conventional painters' brushes, house-painter brushes, scrapers, towels and rubbing rags.

Sometimes she will decide that the progress of the composition is unsuccessful and will overpaint and begin again and again, as she did with the final panel of Ambleside (it would be unfair to say which is the final panel). "I knew I would find it – I knew it would come good," she said to me, "even though I overpainted it and began again at least four times."

So with the writer's revision. In talking with her, I compared this last panel to the most difficult chapter for me in Dark Palace, which I reworked and reworked, always on the cliff edge of discarding it entirely. It came good and has been singled out for praise by reviewers.

Many writers will do 10 or 12 drafts of a chapter or short story. Sometimes more. These days, the new technology of the word processor invites continuous revision that no longer reduces itself to preservable, discrete "drafts" that the typewriter and handwriting methods once produced. The word processor is the ultimate writer's instrument where the manuscript can be kept constantly fluid and effortlessly changed, emended, and with which the writer can endlessly experiment.

Painters who work in the way that Logue does, have had this fluidity for centuries – the only advantage (if it is an advantage) that the writer has with the word processor is that the earlier versions can be saved and kept for comparison with later versions – and the manuscript can be changed back to what it was if necessary.

The painter has lost both the successive revised images and the possibility of revision after the work is sent out into the world (although X-ray and other technology now allows us to see the earlier "drafts" of a masterwork, to see some of the false starts and revisions).

 

ONE OF THE great similarities between Logue's and my creative cycles, say when she is working on a series of paintings for a show or when I am writing a book, is the pattern of what I describe as latency / accumulation / embarkation / engagement / fatigue / latency / critical distance / return to engagement / latency.

The embarkation on a project usually comes after a period of rest and diversion – a time of latency (which could be mistaken for idleness by our mothers) but which is also a time of conscious or subconscious accumulation of random impressions and note taking.

Although there is no actual writing or painting being done during the latency period there seems to be some evidence of unconscious creative cooking.

The conception – that is, the coalescing of these random impressions and notes into an idea for the next project, usually arrives as a fairly vague set of notions that have risen to the consciousness as a sense of "what to do next".

Then begins the period of intense engagement with the canvas (or, in my case, word processor) – six or more days at a stretch – in Logue's case often six– to nine-hour days, in my case, about four hours of writing followed by research and revision of the day's work with a martini. I find I do indirect revision that a painter can't do – that is, making changes to my work on the laptop when they occur to me, say, while watching television or reading after the day's work is done.

This intensely engaged period is usually brought to a grinding halt by fatigue and I do not use the words "grinding halt" loosely. Sometimes this fatigue manifests as an inability to go on, a sense of disengagement with the world, a distaste for all the good things – food, companionship and so on. I read a description of this condition in the diaries of the painter Donald Friend: "I am in an irritated and nervy state and find little satisfaction in any companions, though at the pub of an evening I smile and chat away." This driven state of depletion has resulted in physical illness for both of us.

We both find that there's a milder, daily pattern during this intensive phase that resembles the fatigue-crash of the longer pattern and is characterised by a high end-of-day tension where little energy is left for the evening, to prepare food, to participate in social life – something that people in other jobs, of course, also find. As with other people, we try to find release from this tension by the same techniques – workouts, yoga, therapy, reading, medication, alcohol and so on.

But there are, too, many days of elation, euphoria, gratification and wonder as well.

I have tried over the years to keep a daily work record so that I can alert myself to the need to stop work and take a break before I reach absolute depletion, but it rarely works. I need a program on the computer that says in a commanding voice, "STOP – DO NOT PASS GO – GO DIRECTLY TO THE BUSH" (my best method of recovery is to go trekking in the bush) and then shuts down the computer. The compulsion to continue working is usually overriding and almost impossible to defy – the voice inside that tells you to just do another day, just finish the next chapter and so on. It is related to work ethic but it is more than that – it is a driven state. It gives the work an imperative, which in extreme situations causes us neurotically to deny the needs of intimates and the demands of the usual life duties.

Once forced to stop by profound depletion, there follows a period of latency where, in Logue's case, gardening might be the answer, or watching movies, or reading, or coming down to the city.

When the desire and capacity to re-engage with the work returns, we both find that the time of detachment from the work has given us critical distance and we see the work with increased clarity and the process begins again.

We both have difficulty in managing our creative health. She says she has learned about managing creative energy from me: I haven't.

 

THE SIMILARITY BETWEEN Logue the painter with her creation of her exhibitions, painting by painting, each suggesting the next, each resonating back on the others, each new canvas causing her to revisit the earlier canvases, parallels the interaction that I find in writing chapters of a novel or short-story cycle. I was interested to realise that in some ways each painting in one of her shows is a chapter or part of a connected, unverbalised "narrative".

Ambleside is an assemblage of panels designed to stay complete and together indefinitely into the future.

This is in radical contrast to her shows, which, while they have a cohesion of their own – Logue takes great pains with the hanging arrangement of her work in exhibitions – are destined and doomed to exist only for the short time of public exhibition, after which the cohesion is forever fractured as the paintings are bought and dispersed to live as single works (maybe a painter's retrospective creates a new temporary assemblage).

The creative demand with Ambleside was to find a permanent cohesion, what she talked of as "a shimmering interplay" among the panels. Again, as with all her work, the paintings communicate at two viewing distances, at least, for the viewer – close – say at a metre and then at about three metres. A painting should engage the viewer at a distance but should also work on an intimate level.

The Ambleside commission had to work mostly at the three-metre distancing because its placing on the foyer wall meant that it could not really be viewed up close.

 

KNOWING WHEN THE work is finished is one of the most delicate and, at times, agonising of the creative decisions, both for the writer and the painter. Many writers love to use a quotation, which they attribute to a painter (I can't discover which painter it was who ever said it): "Painters say that they never finish a painting: they simply give up."

I don't think this is really right. After a while you know – or hope you know – that to do more would be to lose the work or would leech away the spontaneity of the work and this knowing when it is time to put down the brush or to type "The End" is sometimes vividly and convincing clear. Sometimes it comes unstuck later and creates dilemmas for me.

As a painter, Logue's view on the question of "completion" is this: "There are formal frameworks used when it comes to resolving or finishing a painting, such as considering colour, tone, style and composition, but ultimately the work is complete when it speaks of the essence of the place or subject depicted. I can sense when this point is reached."

But she falters into contradiction when she reminds me that painters have been known to buy their work back and to change it.

There is the wonderful story of Matisse being caught in the Louvre on a chair with his palette changing part of his painting – the guards and curators were in a quandary whether to stop him or not.

Un poème n'est jamais achevé; c'est toujours un accident qui le termine, c'est-à-dire qui le donne au public – Paul Valéry, French poet and critic. A poem is never finished; it's always a decision that puts a stop to it, that is to say, the decision made when the poet gives it to the public. Writers do sometimes have the opportunity to change the work after it has gone into the public domain as a book (I have) – in future editions and in series editions revised by the authors at the end of their writing lives.

Some writers make significant changes when they read their work at proof stage. The American writer Grace Paley expressed this sort of late creative surge in a story titled, "Enormous Changes at the Last Moment".

Publishers live in dread of this impulse.

 

LOGUE FOUND THAT the placement of Ambleside in the public space of the foyer posed further creative questions. Although the architects had their vision when drawing up their plans and had given her size specifications in their brief, in reality, the work needed to be reconsidered when actually assembled and put into position by her on the cherry picker.

This placement brought into play creative decisions relating to the scale and positioning of the work in the space.

And there is the tantalising possibility that there are, in fact, a few optional arrangements of the panels, each equally valid.

Logue realised that this public installation was the final stage of the creative act. She says that with a large public artwork, the hanging becomes problematic and that new aesthetic questions arise involving method of attachment to the surface of the wall, angle of viewing, lighting and spacing, the solving of which was Logue's final aesthetic phase.

These questions cannot ever be foreseen and can only be confronted when the work is manoeuvred into place.

There is no real equivalent in the work of a writer.

 

I HAVE NOT had a permanent working space for some years now and consequently have learned to work wherever I find myself – hotel rooms, living in the Royal Automobile Club, at times at Essington Park, at times in institutional settings such as a university. It is not so easy for a painter to set up shop.

I once described it this way: "I do tend to cart around some familiar objects for my writing desk wherever it may be. I have a small brass-cast sleeping dog, which was made for me by sculptor Ester Bellis to mark the death of a dog I once had named DG. I have a hip flask that has been with me a long time, engraved by a friend as a now-forgotten joke, "Surfer's Paradise Short Story Writing Championships 1980". I have feathers from two pet hens I once owned, Blackstone and Whitestone. There is, what I fancy to be, a petrified frog from a trek I did in the Kimberley. I have a stone from the Clyde River, which I consider to be the heart of the heart of my country (a seer stone, perhaps). Oh yes, there's a fox fur from my time in France that goes over my writing chair. I like the feel of the fur against my skin, which probably makes up a little for the absence of an animal in my life.

"I have noticed that when I am in a place for a time, say most recently in Texas, I gather on my writing desk, found-feathers of the native birds, a snail shell, nuts and seeds from local plants, and a sun-whitened animal bone from my trekking in Texas.

"Bone, feather, shells, seed, the seer stone, fur. The ghost of a dog. Sounds like witchcraft. Writing and witchcraft might not be that far apart.

"In contrast to these elemental things, my laptop has become a deeply personal and vast, portable environment, containing as it does, journals, letters, financial records, manuscripts, projects in development, notes, and speculations, dreams, plans, a library (online), music, even pictures, and website bookmarks such as newspapers, which are familiar places to visit wherever I am in the world. And email as the everyday link with my friends wherever we all are."

While working, I listen to classical music on radio or CD and drink sparkling mineral water.

Logue's studio is a large, steel, farm-barn heated with a potbelly stove and with a paved floor, with some rugs, set in the grounds of the heritage house, Essington Park. On the walls are photographs of her animals, her friends, former lovers, her relatives, invitations from her contemporaries, loved postcards and photographs of objects. She has copies of topographical maps of the surrounding district from which she draws titles for her work. Each day she brings her tea, soy milk and thermos in a wicker basket.

While working she plays an eclectic range of music – Dylan, Pärt, Eno.

Snakes have been known to pass through the studio.

For the Ambleside project she had a young neighbour construct a wall similar in dimensions to the World Square foyer in her studio.

She works long hours, usually living in semi-seclusion for months on end, seeing very few people and with occasional visits to the city, where she lives it up with cocktails and grand dining, films, visits to the current art shows and to bookshops – where she loads up with novels, mainly contemporary fiction and serious journals – and her favourite CD shop.

While I was writing this essay, Logue came across a quotation by Henry James that she thought summed up some of her feelings about her working methods and life as a painter: "It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance. And I know of no substitution for the force and beauty of its process."

Then she adds with a laugh, "but there are too many contradictions to any quotation about art". 

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