SOME OF THE BEST
21 August, 1998
Photograph by Bob Gentry 8/5/99
A Thought for Today
Life isn't a picnic, but neither is a picnic.
"Dear Rod, I have
never forgotten "A Letter to the Painter," from a 1998 Flight Plan. I might be
wrong but I feel it is one of the most personal insights into you and your thought
process. Is this an ongoing correspondence and will you be sharing any more of your
letters to your painter friend? Sincerely, Josh Reynolds"
Dear Josh, Other letters do exist and after about six I thought of perhaps combining them
into a book entitled "Letters to the Painter". I did so but like several other
books I've written, never got around to offering it for publication. It may yet happen
because in the letters I began to inform myself as much as "the painter" on how
I felt about life and art. If I was being informed, perhaps the information I had dug out
of myself might apply to others.
Publishing more of the letters is something I'll think about. And, yes, our correspondence
is ongoing. Kindest regards, Rod
A LETTER TO THE PAINTER
I doubt your wait is anxious, but my own
anxiety concerning letters left too long unanswered causes me to write straight back to
you. I hope this note does not arrive amid too many empty canvases. If so, I remind you
with brushstroke as with pen and paper it is always draught or downpour. In-betweens seem
left for those who by necessity clock hours. There are times when I'd gladly practice
fisticuffs with clocks, but never time clocks..
You say you want to paint, then do. Do not accept advice on how or why or even to what
purpose. Art is its own reason; surely that applies to painting even more than word work.
Writing, painting or whatever, the nouns and verbs of any art find their way to us and in
proper order when the time comes. In the end inspiration is more dependable than marriage
partners or the truth. Perhaps art is the only truth. I am anyway certain that if we stay
true to our visions, what comes of them will be honesty amplified.
You should not be afraid of being selfish. Most well meant invitations ought to be as
unwelcome to the artist in us as noise, or what flows from us will be forever stops and
starts. As always, alas, the best stuff stays in our heads refusing to be brokered at any
price. We will never get it down onto paper or up on canvas. That worries me no more. I
look upon what's left behind as seeds toward the next work. Never again do I want to walk
away from a just-completed book totally empty of ideas. That kind of emptiness is a harder
prospect that the thought of death and it's too hard jump-starting the next work without a
little compost as a platform.
You say that you have burned some work. Good. Very good. You won't regret it later on. I
once saved everything. No more. The hope that inspiration can be gotten back from some
unfinished sentence or unwisely started work is false hope carried to the worst extreme -
desperation. It will leave you beached and worse off every time.
I think about you and your work with increasing frequency. I picture you in that
ramshackle country house not stoking stove with old canvases to stave off chill but
looking so intently at the open frame it fills before you even rise to mix your colors. A
piece of art ought to be nearly finished in our heads before we give our hands free reign.
The truth will always have less ornamentation when what we have to say is more clearly
thought-out ahead of time. It is all right if thought is just a hair ahead of brushstroke
but giving the hand free reign is for finger painters. Disastrous for the artist. If
someone tells you they are unsure where their hand is leading them beware and don't
believe it; and I urge you to ignore other people's criticism. Your own will be hard
How wise of you not to imagine yourself the next Picasso or Rouault but only you. Art is
only what we bring to it and take from it as individuals. The copy of anything will never
approach the original. Group thought like gang rape has no love in it, not any real
passion or kindness. It is not enough to be good at our work, we must be good to it. It is
a fine thing to be eagle-like and proud of what you do, but never so overbearing as to
forget the work comes first - any celebration later. As banks cannot stop or prevent
inflation, we cannot stop friends from inflating (or for that matter, deflating) our egos;
we need not, however, aid and abet them. It is always dumb to believe in our own
importance over the importance of our work.
Tennessee Williams used to say of painters, "Their posthumous reputations are much
better than what they are." I do not find that thought overly critical. It isn't easy
to have friends, many friends, and still be good at what you do. Friends give so much, but
the payback expected or not, takes too much out of us. Saps energy that should have been
conserved and ladled out as needed to work. For myself, I have spent too much time in
public - not enough locked off and thinking with enough seriousness about what I do. If
someone offered to embroider a sampler for my wall, I would ask that it read, "Stop
and think." None of us stop enough. Almost none think as much as we should and few,
if any, join both words with "and," and do it.
Finally, the sketch you sent me was superb. It is on my mantel, still unframed. I go out
of myself at times to walk amid the upstate New York woods you got on paper so well. I can
smell their bark from across the room. When it's windy I close the window, fearful that
your trees will lose some leaves. The way your light comes through those first few limbs
and that clump of juniper where the path turns is a miracle new to me.
While I am flattered that you wrote to me for thoughts and some advice, I believe that you
are far along in becoming an important painter. I envy your future; will use it as one
more reason to stay alive as long as possible, hoping I can be part of it.
Your path through the woods is safe here, your letters find safe haven too. Courage. A
friend ends letters to me with that word. None of us can have too much of it. Courage, and
love till next time. R.
- from Letters To The Painter, Previously unpublished
first published in Flight Plan 8/21/98