Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



February 2010

"First is the challenge [of work]. The sculptor Henry Moore said: The secret of life is to have a task, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is---it must be something you cannot possibly do!"


Donald M. Murray, My Twice-Lived Life: A Memoir, Ballantine Books, p. 75.

A Bit of a Challenge

Dear Reader,

Once again, Don Murray speaks to me from one of his books, as I accept the challenge of this monthly deadline. If anyone had a strong work ethic, it was Don, and he inspires me both in the studio and at the computer. Bless him forever.

December was the first month in twelve years that I had not made a new painting. One thing about a strong work ethic is that you cannot forgive yourself for lapses. As I watched December trickle through my fingers and tended to all things big and small, the ache to be in the studio gnawed at me. December ended and the New Year began.

I knew from Don that the only way to call myself an artist or a writer was to practice, practice, practice: to sit at the computer or to stand at the easel and just do it. To find out what I know that I didn't know I knew. To create something that is new. To risk, no--- to invite failure and learn from it.

I set the bar for my challenge in this way: I wanted to create a series of pieces that use the same colors, but would be different in mood and design. The only things they would have in common would be the size (12" by 12"), support (canvas), color palette and music selection.

I brought up two blank 12" square canvases from storage. My mood was dark. If this failed, I would abandon the series idea. If the difficulty of the work kept me interested, I would go for a third.

I primed the two canvases using a mixture of yellow ochre and titanium white and basked in the glow of color. Why those colors? A reaction to the snow covering everything outside? Too much thinking! "Paint, don't think," said Cezanne.

I laid out over 100 tubes of acrylic paint, which is itself a ritual. All those possibilities! I selected my colors randomly: cadmium yellow deep hue, naples yellow, unbleached titanium, quinacridone burnt orange, burgundy, pale olive, and bright aqua green. Some warm, some cool, all beautiful. Why those colors? Too much thinking!

Large, disposable palette paper invited me to squeeze color from the tubes and squirt Golden's satin acrylic glazing liquid onto the globs to keep the paint workable.

I chose my music. It had to be good enough to be listened to repeatedly, over days of painting. It had to be all Stravinsky for this project. Le Sacre du Printemps, The Firebird, Petrushka, Fireworks, Symphony in 3 Movements, Symphony in C.

After putting on my latex gloves and mixing some colors on the palette, I dropped blobs of paint onto the first canvas, then teased shapes with my palette knife. Stravinsky urged me on: USE YOUR FINGERS!

The rest of the story that became "Stravinsky One" happened in the non-verbal realm of art making. Paint dried enough for me to decide to use colored pencils and ink pens to draw on the canvas. I stepped back, sat down, and studied the piece from a distance.

My goal was to begin again and make the next piece different from the first. This time, I dragged my old Afro pick though the wet paint, creating wavy lines that vibrated and danced. I stepped back, sat down, and studied the piece from a distance. Once the paint dried, I could move back in and play with the shapes created by the texture on the canvas.

Then it was time to decide if this experiment was challenging enough to try a third piece. I decided that it was. I struggled through most of it, dropping paint onto the canvas, using my palette knives, fingers and Afro pick to move the paint around. This time, the Afro pick was producing tiny parallel grids. That had happened before (see Gallery Chapter 5, row 2, number 3 "Bird's Eye View"). Then the "click" moment happened. I was remembering the time when I was staring at the shimmering mosaic tiles in a side altar at the Basilica of Saint Praxedes in Rome. What triggered that memory? Perhaps the grid patterns in my painting? Too much thinking! Using cool greens, I went into the grids and transformed the spaces into tiny tiles. I pushed the effect even more by using ink pens to create a three-dimensional look.

Bliss. Pure bliss. It is as if I walked through fire and came out, not only unscathed, but filled with joy. That is the addiction implicit in the creation of art. It is Henry Moore's "secret of life."