To See with the Human Heart

so much rides on this verdict
copyright 2022, Molly Larson Cook
Acrylic, gouache, ink and paper on canvas
28″ x 22″

In the bleak early winter – apologies to Christina Rossetti – my November studio has become more than chilly. At some moments, it’s downright bleak. I’m taken back to January art school days in Maine where we worked on our projects in an unheated building, thanks to a power failure. Classes were not cancelled. The show went on, but the faculty took pity and brought us hot, homemade soup. That’s Maine.

Here, I have a small heater for my equally small space and it does well, but this Oregon winter is chilly and damp. Still, I want to be out there, so I throw on a couple of sweatshirts and warm socks, grab a fresh cup of hot tea and head for the door. The Maine spirit survives.

I’ve learned to leave the heat on in the studio just a bit when I close things down to keep the paints and the canvases, the inks and the air, moi from getting too cold.

In the great tradition (that is really not so great, just romantic and legendary) of artists in unheated garrets, I keep the juices jangling to fend off consumption or whatever it was that did so many of them in. And to be honest, my humble little studio shed with new lights and curtains is mostly pleasantly cozy.

So, back to seeing and not just looking…

My first art class was in Massachusetts not Maine and it did not come until I was a little past forty. It was a pastels class. I knew nothing about pastels but it was the only class that fit my schedule. I explained to the instructor, wonderful Myra, that I had never taken a class and couldn’t draw a straight line with a ruler. She thought this was fine because, “we don’t draw straight lines.” What we did draw was still lifes and my first one was an apple. After working the entire two hours on it, I was pleased that it really looked like an apple. When I pointed this out to Myra she smiled and said, “Great! Now do one that doesn’t look like an apple.”

She must have seen the budding abstract artist within me. At the very least, she gave me permission to cross some boundaries. Encouraged and applauded it. A couple of workshops later, wonderful Myra taught me to See when she introduced me to contour drawing, a deceptively simple technique in which the artist more or less becomes one with the object being drawn. Anyone can try this at home.

Choose an object, get your paper and pencil or pen and draw. There’s a trick to it. You draw not by looking at the paper – ever – but by looking at the object. You draw as if your finger is tracing the object, tracing what you see. When you look at your paper later, you will most likely see a scrambled mess. This is usually caused by haste, by drawing too fast and not taking the time to really look/see the object but by trying to draw what you think the object looks like.

A humorous example of this came later when an art instructor/friend at the Maine College of Art reported that the young women in his life drawing class where students generally draw nudes were complaining that the young men in the class were “not drawing the nude model right.” They were drawing “Playboy” models instead. The instructor pointed out to them that this was because the young men were uncomfortable looking at the models directly and so were drawing what they thought they should be seeing.

Voila and vive, la difference.

For an artist, this difference is critical. As writer Saul Bellow has it, “What is art but a way of seeing?”

What, indeed.

My experience as an abstract expressionist artist is that looking is the physical act and anyone/everyone who sees the art can more or less agree on – and describe – what’s on a given canvas. Seeing calls on the personal experience of the viewer and allows the viewer to construct the narrative for the painting whether the viewer likes the painting or not. Seeing is about perception and connection.

As I’ve changed things up from the jazz-inspired paintings to those titled with lines of poetry, I realize that in both cases, the titles might provide a clue to the viewer but the colors in both cases leave room for personal interpretation.

The current title is from one of my own poems in a collection I wrote about Maine. I said I’d send the poems I’m using for these titles. This poem, “Going for Shrimp on Bailey Island,” is long so I’ll skip the entire poem, but here’s the context/stanza in which this line appears:

With generous hand the bartender sets down shrimp,
pink curves heaped loosely in a wet blue bowl.
“On the house,” he says and smiles.
“Fresh this morning. My brother and me, we made the sauce.
Tell us what you think.

He nods toward the kitchen where a serious-looking man
stands watching. The bartender waits.
The whole room waits,
boys with hand-drawn pictures for their mothers.
Lobstermen, cook, and barkeep wait while we lift our shrimp.

So much rides on this verdict.

Copyright 1995, Molly Larson Cook

In their book Art & Fear, Bayles and Orland posit: “To make art is to sing with the human voice.”

I would add, “To make art is to see with the human eyes and heart.”

2 thoughts on “To See with the Human Heart

  1. Janice, my dear

    Thank you for the wonderful comment. I’ll send a messsage to your email about the poem. You are so kind…


  2. This is such an inspiring post, Molly. It is a reminder that we all have no limits and our imagination can take us so many places, mostly unexpected, with pleasant surprises at the end.

    I love the painting and if I were remodeling I’d buy it. Alas, all I’m doing lately is downsizing and selling off things, but it doesn’t limit my appreciation of good art.

    Where can I find the entire poem…I’m trying to delve into ekphrastic poetry, but life gets in the way. Meanwhile, I’m still Traverse-ing the World, and maybe someday will have completed my poems about experiences on seven continents. Keep going.

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