My usual starting point is a rough - but whole - composition, all of its secondary elements slowly clarifying through multiple thumbnails and a full-scale preliminary drawing. Not “Mi Sol Fa.” Its first step was nothing more than one of its key parts: the map of the western third of Oklahoma (the state I was born and raised in) turned 90 degrees, the verticalized panhandle forming the side wall of a deep niche, a tall jar embedded in the niche, most of it in shadow. Finding the whole this part belonged to was a bit like archaeology, as if I were in possession of, say, the lower half of a statue and needed to dig about for the rest of it in a heap of other fragments, trying this torso, that arm. Conceptually I already knew what I was up to. With the map of Oklahoma embedded in it, this image would almost have to become another in a long line of self-portraits, both descriptive and aniconic, and it would necessarily include the partial outlines of all the states I’ve lived in: Oklahoma, New Jersey, Illinois, Kansas, and Pennsylvania. “States” I called it in April of ’07, a working title only. But it would take me well over a year before I unearthed, so to speak, the rest of it, before I found the right fit between the core theme and the complete form.
It’s hard to describe, this search for those parts of an image I can’t see yet, whether that search takes place in my mind’s eye, or through sketches and drawings, or on the finished pastel surface. In Eugene Gendlin’s “Focusing” process (which I learned and taught in the 70’s), all words and images that emerge in awareness are checked for their rightness, their on-target-ness, against a clearly felt sense of a specific problem. It’s the overall sense of the problem that distinctly says yes, no, maybe, and every “yes” shifts the problem forward toward clarity and release. Solving visual problems is very similar, at least for me: I absolutely depend on a bodily felt sense to guide me into the not yet known. Though it’s odd: I often think that the emerging image itself knows, and that it gives me nods of approval or scowls of discontent. Any armchair psychiatrist would call that projection, but I shamefully continue to delude myself into believing that every developing picture has a life of its own, both connected to me and separate from me, which I must in the end follow, not control.
Though of course I always try to maintain control. I tried, for instance, to plant my little seed of an idea into the formal structure of “Six Wooden Blocks.” (Uh uh.) Then I tried to cram it into a cobbled together wall in a compressed vertical format reminiscent of “Ad Astra.” (Close, but no cigar.) I said yes, or it said yes, to the vertical format, but out of frustration I simply erased the top half of the wall, leaving above it what felt like an audaciously ample golden rectangle of black, standing on end, a void of darkness big enough to jump over the wall into. And then I felt I was moving in exactly the right direction, every revision pointing me toward what I now experienced as an inevitable end, including its new title, “Mi Sol Fa” (translate: Me So Far) - a visual memoir of a passionate lover of bad puns. The past below, my past, and the future above, “separated by the sharp thin line of the present,” as I wrote in my journal next to an almost fully realized thumbnail sketch. “A summation, one of those upward-moving spiral-backward step-forwards,” I continued, built out of the bits and pieces of my life, my work.
For that purpose, there would be many conscious borrowings: from “Ad Astra”, 2007, the overall format, along with the notion of a stone structure pieced together out of cast-offs from earlier structures, some of them containing portions of words or phrases; from “Stele”,2004, the shell-casing given to me in ’02 at the funeral of my life-partner’s father; from “The Garden of the Hesperides” , 2006, the tall Mason jar in a deep niche, and from “Vita Brevis”, 1984, two crisscrossing objects in that jar, one from the natural world, one from the studio, each pointing down to their counterparts on the lower shelf; from “Things Left Behind”, 1993, the partial outlines of the states I’ve been rooted in; from “Via dei Panieri”, 2006, a part of my signature ghosting the stone like a worn graffiti mark; from “Torches for the Night”,1990, the Latin acronym AMDG (“ad majorem Dei gloriam” - “to the greater glory of God”); from “Hide & Seek”, 1991, the beginning of a line of music on a bass clef (mi sol fa); from “Angulus”, 2001, a leaf gall with an arcing stem, the product of an insect consuming a leaf and morphing it into its home, a favorite metaphor of mine for the kind of artist whose work digests and transforms the observable, the commonplace; from a dozen images since 1998, pocks in the stone mapping out thematically relevant constellations - in this case, Sagittarius, the sign I was born under ; and from almost all of the images I’ve completed since 1989, still-life elements, both natural and manufactured, poised on wall ledges, becalmed in deep niches, minutely re-enacted, pure black above.
And one more reprise: from “Niche”, 1997, a stone surface etched with the names of people I’ve loved and lost. “I want my own fellow travelers remembered here, in the stone,” I wrote early in July of this year, “all those beloved voices gone since “Niche”. And on July 29th I found myself wondering “ who else I’ll lose before it’s done”. Two days later, my mother in intensive care, I was rocked with the news that she had only weeks to live. Ultimately, the initial storm of grief clearing out after her death, her initials - VINC - landed on the right side of the large horizontal stone (another golden rectangle) at the top of the wall and just east of the long winding crack (the Delaware River) dividing the stone into sections of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the latter my mother’s childhood home. Her initials also form a part of the Latin phrase “amor vincit omnia” (“love conquers all”), which the picture’s edge reduces to “AMOR VINC OM” - “AMOR” a nod to Roma, the one city in the world that draws me like a magnet, “OM” a nod to the meditation I practice at the easel. My own mark (a capital M with a line under it) sits above the M of ROMA, and the picture’s date reads down from it: MMVIII. The names or initials of other “beloved voices” are strewn about.
The poppy seed pod is the only new element, but it too links iconographically with the past and would happily take its place in any meditation on mortality. A post-WWI symbol of remembrance, in the classical world the poppy flower was also the attribute of Hypnos, god of sleep, and Morpheus, god of dreams, as well as a personification of Night. Here, the flower, also a thing of the past, is merely invoked, and in the sere pod it has left behind another darkness protects the seeds of a new season. Shake it, and the seeds rattle, restlessly.
“All morning/ with dry instruments/ the field repeats the sound of rain/ from memory/ and in the wall/ the dead increase their invisible honey . . . . .” (from W. S. Merwin’s “Provision”)
-G. Daniel MassadClick here to go back