Agnes Martin

Abstract painter Agnes Martin poses next to one of her paintings in her Galisteo, N.M. studio in 1991. Photo by Charles R. Rushton.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about snow, and about the color white, which led me to think about Agnes Martin and her serenely abstract (and mostly neutral) paintings. The simplicity of them caused some to discount her work, but in the end, she was awarded a National Medal of Art in 2004 for her contributions as an abstract expressionist painter.

In an interview, she said, “I paint with my back to the world.”

What could we all accomplish with that kind of fine focus and stubborn grace in pursuit of our own work? Imagine sitting down to write with a clear mind and seeing what showed up. Or responding to an inspired idea for a painting by taking a brush to a blank canvas. I know very few creatives who are able to ignore all the beautiful distractions, set aside ego and desire, and simply follow those creative impulses.

Drawing has been calling to me lately; I believe that’s a sign that I need to slow down and focus. The business of everyday life is a slippery slope: there is always work to do and connections to make, and we’re programmed to want those things. Personally, I sometimes crave connection, but when I don’t give in to the impulse to chase it down, I find a whole other universe waiting for me to pay attention.

The writer Elizabeth Gilbert says every morning she checks in with her dormant ideas to let them know she hasn’t forgotten them, so they’ll stick around and wait for her to attend to them. However you tend to them, ideas are powerful drivers of work and lead into exploratory forays in all disciplines. My experience is that I can take notes, then successfully ’back-brain’ ideas until the time is right to develop them, but I like that Gilbert addresses them as sentient beings.

One hot, dry summer I made a collage called Pray for Rain. I was part of the Artists Gallery collective in those days, so I hung the finished piece in the gallery wishing for it to sell, but mostly hoping that  it might bias the collective consciousness of the town toward rain.

It began raining later than normal that summer, but when the monsoon did start (after I finished and installed that piece, I’ll have you know), it rained and rained and rained. Every day it rained. Torrents flowed down San Francisco Street. Kayakers navigated the Rio de Flag. The ground became soggy. We all carried umbrellas and wore raincoats, every day. Was it that piece hanging in the gallery, or did the atmospheric conditions become right, or something in between?

I’ve noticed a tendency to “awful-ize” this mild winter: we accept the ease of the balmy weather, but feel a bit guilty about enjoying it. Is this a throwback to believing in a vengeful god who will punish us later if we take some pleasure? I understand the need to be prudent with water in the face of a drought, but as any Dustbowl survivor could tell you, dread and worry aren’t particularly helpful states of mind. Better to think about welcoming the snow when it comes. March is our snowiest month, after all.

One recent Saturday, I had the privilege of hearing the artist David Christiana talk about his work. (Thanks to Alan Petersen, curator of fine art at the Museum of Northern Arizona for bringing him, and for inviting him to show in 2016.) Christiana talked about attention: being able to sit in one spot and make drawings for a year or more, while seeing something fresh in the landscape with every sitting. On his website, he writes, “Once in a while an idea takes hold and pulls me out of the dirt.”

Last week, with snow predicted, I watched the sharp shadows shift and blur as low-hanging clouds obscured the sun. In this atmosphere, I started a series of small drawings, white and grey, with just a hint of color here and there, in homage to Agnes Martin. The first one I’m calling Snow Day.

There’s a saying about “feeding the wolf” you want to encourage. So I picked up some new dip nibs for drawing with ink yesterday. The sensations of dipping into the pot of ink, tapping off the excess, then dragging the pen across the paper felt deliciously mind-expanding. I slipped into discovery mode, and stayed there for a dreamy hour.