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spirit and form

i keep circling around this idea in different ways and places. first, in A Pacific Northwest Nature Sketchbook, Jude Siegel introduces an exercise she calls spirit drawing. it has alot in common with blind contour drawing where you imagine the tip of your pen right on the edge of the object and you trace that line. and you don’t look at your paper. the drawings are often lopsided and circles don’t meet, but i have such an affinity for blind contour drawiings. it seems that often my own attempts capture something true and lively of my subject. something essential. here’s how Jude describes what she means:

imagine that what the eye sees then travels through the heart (the emotional heart, which can recognize the spirit or essence of an object–something the mind cannot do), then continues down the arm and fingers, and finally through the pen and is recorded on the paper (30).

ah! a direct route to the heart. (i’m imaging crazy diagrams of the optic nerve bouncing down to the heart!) but when i read her description, i recognized my own method. yes, of course that’s what i’ve been doing. and that’s why my drawings, though not realistic, still hold some truth.

Book cover of Pacific Northwest Nature Sketchbook

then i was reading and thinking about Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture that looks so modern and not at all natural. at least to my eye. and he said:

i wanted to abstract nature in a way that expressed the essence of it.

here again is the twist, the step away from strict representation, that somehow brings the work into plumb.

finally, i have been reading the glorious Tesserae by the poet Denise Levertov. tesserae are the individual pieces that make up a mosaic, and these are short, autobiographical pieces that add up to quite a portrait. she talked about an art teacher of hers that would say, “Pattern!” she meant to call to mind all the essential composition factors. Levertov links this to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ term, inscape. i immediately knew what was meant by this new, idiosyncratic word. a way of getting to the heart of the thing. a few illuminating lines from Hopkins:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

of course this is a romanitic idea–that an essence can be found, that our abstractions are more true somehow. and i can try to dignifiy it by calling it capital “R” Romanitic. but usually when i say romantic, i mean it as a put down. and still. and still. when i’ve come across these ideas something inside of me sings. this is what i’ve come for.


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