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Anna Cypra Oliver
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(Ed note: this is the final post in Anna Cypra Oliver's series about writing and painting. Find yesterday's post here. sdh.) CRITICISM CONTINUED A family legend grew up around my grandfather, which told of his genius as an artist and how his profound talent was never fully realized because he chose to take a job designing logos and letterhead for his father-in-law’s paper products manufacturing company. At a very young age, my grandfather acquired a reputation in his native Chile as a watercolor caricaturist—his work appeared frequently as illustrations for news stories and, in the early 1920s, when he himself was only in his early twenties, El Murcurio, Santiago’s premier newspaper, staged an exhibition of his work in its galleries. My grandmother loved to tell how he was greeted by a brass band and a length of red carpet on his return to Santiago in 1940 for his mother’s funeral. “The great artiste,” the crowd exclaimed, “Juan Olivér has come home!” We worshipped him, not just because he was a wonderful person, though he was, but because he was an artist, a mysterious being touched by the God in whose existence we claimed (except for my mother) not to believe. Juan’s best work was produced in New York in the 1930s, before and in the early years of his relationship with my grandmother. Sensual wood sculpture, blatantly sexual nudes, economical pencil sketches of landscapes and of Rose. It is also the work in which his Chilean origins are most evident: gauchos on horseback, tangoing couples, guitar-playing men with brown faces and handle-bar mustaches abound. Later, his painting and sculpture became derivative of Cubist Picasso and Juan Gris, a point where my grandfather stuck, working in this vocabulary well into the 1960s and 70s. Perhaps it is no surprise that his production of these poor imitations coincides with his years as a designer for The Warshaw Manufacturing Company, Nathan’s company, a job Juan took in the late 1930s or early 1940s, in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Until then he'd made a living by creating book jacket art and sophisticated advertisements that appeared above his own signature in publications such as The New Yorker, McCall's, and Playbill, before the advent of cheap and gritty photography and the economic bust made his sort of hand-drawn commercial work harder and harder to get. Who can blame him for wanting more security, especially having become, at forty, a husband and father? Nor is it surprising that despite my grandmother’s repetition of the brass band and red carpet story and the deep sound of regret with which she told it, how he abandoned his career as an artist “just as he was beginning to make a name for himself in New York,” it was surely she who most wished for him to take a job in her father’s company, just as it was she who wanted the family to move from the city to the suburbs. And yet, blaming her is too easy. He... Continue reading
Posted Jul 24, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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(Ed note: This is the fourth in a series by Anna Cypra Oliver. Find yesterday's post here. sdh) PAINTING CONTINUED I keep at it, after the first course ends, and a second, as Stephan drifts back to pens and watercolor. For years, a few hours a day, I keep on. I slow down, become more meticulous, more willing to set up properly and to take the time needed to prep a canvas. I set up a studio with a proper exhaust fan and dress carefully each time before starting. I get better, acquiring the competence that comes with simple slogging on. At first, I obsessively paint flowers in 12x12 squares. Then the canvases start to get bigger: 30x30, 36x48, and the subjects more complex: a ketchup bottle on a NYC diner table, interiors bisected by light and shadow. I love it, in a way that I once loved words, which I have essentially stopped trying to set down. I don’t have a philosophy of painting, no grand vision of art in the twenty-first century. As a painter I’m exactly what I was as a writer: a documentarian, a literalist. In writing the actual attracts me—overheard dialogue, found details, people’s life stories—though not in any kind of whole cloth way; my interest is in framing and selecting, seeing the resonances between one element and another. My approach to art is even simpler: something attracts my notice, and I paint it. I’m drawn to bright colors, the curvy organic shapes of things like chairs and bowls and flowers, the splash of light on a wall. Nothing that would win space in a gallery in Chelsea. I paint what I see, or try to, though I have gotten better at leaving things out; I also try hard to see light and shadow, something most neophyte painters fail to capture. Like most people of my class and background I’ve been trained to feel a little disdain for any representational art, no matter how masterful, but I can’t for the life of me seem to abstract anything on canvas myself, something about which I always feel defensive. My inspirations are Vuillard, Bonnard, Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher, but I can rarely achieve even their softness of focus. I draw lines as straight as I can. I’m fixated on accuracy. Maybe that’s just the learning curve. A handful of classes and sketching with Stephan constitutes the whole of my art education. Because I have little formal training I’m still just trying to get my hand to obey my eye. People with backgrounds in art are always telling me that perspective is not important, that formal training can be deadening, but I want to gain enough command to be able to break a line by intention rather than pure amateurishness. A deep knowledge of grammar seems to me a prerequisite for being a writer—when I fracture a sentence, I usually know I’m doing it. Why should painting be any different? Picasso could render a plaster bust so... Continue reading
Posted Jul 23, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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(Ed note: This is the third in a series by Anna Cypra Oliver. Find yesterday's post here. sdh) PAINTING I couldn’t write and so for a long time I turned my creative attention elsewhere: to elaborate cooking and entertaining, freelance editing, the creation with two colleagues of a dramatic reading series, travelling and sketching with Stephan. Then on impulse, prompted by that first effort with the starter kit, I signed Stephan and myself up for an oil painting course at the New School in Manhattan. After showing us how to arrange our palettes, the instructor, a young working artist named Sonya Sklaroff, set up a canvas in front of a nude model and, as a demonstration, began to paint. First, draw a rough sketch in a single color thinned with turpentine. She made a puddle of watery ultramarine on the palette and quickly roughed in the shape of the reclining woman. If you don’t like the composition, wipe it out with a rag, then start again. She stood back, squinted, rubbed out the legs, repositioned them. Make sure you draw in the shadows at the beginning—shadows are not an afterthought, but an integral part of the object, helping to give it weight and substance—and anything you might want to include in the background. She drew an off-center line behind the model to indicate the corner of the room. After that, lay in all your darks. Work all around the canvas, not just in one corner. We pressed toward her, wanting to be told her secrets, to have the curtain drawn back from the mystery of Art. Save the details for later. Stand back from the canvas, holding your brush at arm’s length, not up-close, with it clutched in your fist. Don’t just fill in a section with paint, as if you were painting a house. I felt a nudge in the ribs by my grandfather. Every brushstroke defines a gesture: if you’re painting the space between the model’s bent elbow and her side, let the movement of your brush over the surface mimic that shape, a kind of off-kilter rectangle. Use the shape of the space around objects to define the objects themselves. For me, she said, that’s what painting is all about—finding beauty in-between things. Now lay in your lights. Notice, Sonya went on, that each color interacts with the ones next to it, altering your perception of it. A yellow next to a blue creates a shimmer of green. This is why you need to work all around your canvas. I thought of writing, the way I developed paragraphs from the inside, adding and unfolding, cutting and rearranging, or skipped around when I wrote, writing whatever most compelled me, wherever I could find a foothold, constructing the narrative bridges later on or sometimes, not at all. Keep wiping your brush; paint, wipe, paint, wipe. Clean it thoroughly in turpenoid before moving on to the next color, to avoid contaminating one with another. Paint, wipe, paint, wipe. We shifted... Continue reading
Posted Jul 22, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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(Ed note: This is the second in a series by Anna Cypra Oliver. Find yesterday's post here. sdh) DRAWING Stephan likes to tell people that he introduced me to drawing, but that isn’t strictly true. I used to draw as a child, in the attic studio of my beloved grandfather Juan, my mother’s father and an accomplished artist, and then in college I took a course in printmaking and one in still life drawing. But the days spent with my grandfather were rare, no more than a week once a year, and the two courses, which I took out of an obscure sense of being ‘artistic,’ a family trait we all proudly traced to Juan, were separated by years. Stephan, on the other hand, made drawing an integral part of my ordinary life. One of his first gifts to me was a sketchbook and a set of pencils. An architect who received his degree long before the advent of AutoCad and computer modeling, Stephan, who is thirty years older than I, learned to draw as part of his trade; on an early date he swept me into a bookstore that specialized in art and architecture to show me the sketchbooks of Le Corbusier, Lou Kahn, Alvaar Aalto. He himself had notebooks full of travel sketches going back to the 1960s and on our first significant vacation together, a bike trip through Burgundy, we agreed to spend part of every day sketching. We sat together in fields, perched on bicycles, at small round café tables, working with ink or watercolor, capturing town squares and distant stone villages in this slow way, immersed in the landscape, and in the air, light, and weather. This manner of travel, on a bicycle, with a pen and pad, was a revelation: never again would I wish to view a landscape through the compressing on-rush of a car window. I had to fight the desire to produce a picture-postcard, a substitute for the snapshots we were not taking, and I couldn’t, no matter how patiently Stephan explained horizon lines and vanishing points, understand perspective—my church steeples tilted down instead of up, my fence posts often advanced instead of receded—but he assured me that it didn’t matter, the wonkiness of the drawings gave them charm. More than anything, I loved the process, as well as the companionship the two of us shared. DRAWING CONTINUED “Loosen the pencil. Let the line flow from your hand. Hold it sideways, balanced on the pad of the thumb and the tips of two fingers, not between your index and middle fingers, as if you’re doing arithmetic. Don’t worry if the lines don’t come out quite right.” Every time I hold a pencil to draw, I hear these instructions in my head, my grandfather speaking to me across three decades from the attic studio in his house in Queens. Now as then, he leans over my shoulder, a warm presence in a suede-elbowed cardigan, his speech soft, still a little foreign despite... Continue reading
Posted Jul 21, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
WRITING The easy flow of words that I had known since I was ten, writing my first poems in a journal with pink corduroy covers, stopped for me twenty-six years later at 2 am on the night of the party my husband Stephan and I threw to celebrate the publication of my first—and so far, only—book. That was when my literary agent, the last guest to straggle out of our apartment, decided that those euphoric post-toast late morning hours were the perfect time to harangue me about what I ought and ought not to do next as a writer. I should build on the momentum I had gained from the reviews of the book, which were glowing and widespread (though they disappointingly did not include one in the New York Times, as she had expected and I had hoped), by writing another book within a year. I should not waste my time writing essays. Nor should I write another memoir, as I was then proposing to do, this time about my maternal grandparents. I should, however, apply the fragmented style I had crafted in my book about my father to a new research-based non-fiction subject that had nothing to do with my own family history. Most importantly, I must decide whether I was a serious writer with a career ahead of me or a dilettante who intended to spend most of her time traipsing around the world on exotic trips with her well-to-do, much older, soon-to-be retired husband. A circle of Stephan’s graduate design students from Pratt Institute had also stayed late, and it was they who had gotten me talking about what I planned to write next. Lubricated by champagne and my own amazing good fortune, I had babbled away to them about all the essays that had been bubbling up in my mind for weeks, including one that followed up on revelations in my book, and the memoir about my grandparents, a subject animated by first generation immigrant rags-to-riches success, second generation American Communism, and the worlds of art and modern dance in 1920s and 30s New York. My agent sat listening in the midst of the students, a smile that I misinterpreted as warm and encouraging on her face. It proved to be a good lesson in keeping talk about future writing projects to a minimum. Being published by a major publisher and, on top of that, the positive reception my work had received, had given me a buoyant sense of license, the confidence that I was not writing into the void, but would find places to publish the pieces I produced. I had already been asked to contribute an essay to a small press anthology, judge a State Council for the Arts writing contest, write a blurb for another memoirist’s forth-coming book with a major publisher. After years as a student, I was now officially a writer. But, really, the sense of license had always been with me, the certainty that I would, in my own... Continue reading
Posted Jul 20, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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Jul 17, 2015