Archive | March, 2014

Thinking About Nils and Diane Lou and Toshiko Takaezu

15 Mar

I learned today that Nils Lou died on Christmas Day, 2013. We’d been trying to schedule a time when I could visit Linfield and sit in on his classes for a day in November, but the weather was not cooperating. There was snow and ice down there on the day I was to go, so we postponed my visit until spring. And now spring is here–and it’s too late.  It makes me very sad.

It’s not that I haven’t learned from him. I’ve learned a lot, and keep on learning–and WILL keep on learning. I’ll never lose that wonderful, quiet, direct, wise, watchful, cut-to-the-chase spirit of his. Like Toshiko Takaezu, he did not talk a lot; he was not one for small talk, but, like her also, he was wide, wide open to living a life that mattered to HIM, and one of the things that mattered tremendously to both of them was having their hands in clay, speaking WITH it, THROUGH it, as only they could. Both had that sense that time would run out, that their special consciousness, which longed so much to continue, would be silenced by circumstances beyond their control–long before everything that needed to be said was said. And that would deprive both of them of one of their greatest pleasures, and one of their greatest sources of meaning, and happiness.  

“So much clay, so little time,” is what Nils used to say. If they could just go on feeling, seeing, listening, expressing,–without that feeling of urgency, that sense of imposed deadline, what a blessing that would be. And yet it was that very sense of deadline that helped create the meaning.

Both of them had such high standards, such high expectations of themselves: Nothing mediocre, commonplace, imitative, mechanical, predictable, overly controlled. Let your hands be your instrument of choice, but let them be wise hands, alert hands, ready, fit, well-practiced hands. Let nothing distract them, or harm them, or get in their way. Let them understand  timing, down to their fingertips. Let them know when to press down, when to lighten up, when to let go, when to begin, when to stop.  

These are not the kinds of hands most people have.

“”Play HARD,” Nils said in his book, ART of PLAY–and aloud, so often. Not “play” as in “pass the time when you have nothing better to do,” but play as in ” take yourself seriously, be what you are, reach out, make a mark, make another, be IN it, be engaged,–follow where the clay leads. Immerse yourself. Let go of your preconceptions about what something needs to be, about what the result will be. Be all in the process.”     

 “Look at these beans,” Toshiko says, in the You Tube Video, “Portrait of an Artist.”  “Look at this potato. You cannot just throw them into the garden and expect them to grow.” It takes WORK to help that potato become what it can become. And, likewise, it takes work to make a pot. Sometimes, she said, she believed that she had already made “the perfect pot,” but she couldn’t allow herself to believe that, because then her reason for devoting so much of her self and her life to the process of creation  would be over.  And then what?

“I have to do it for my own SELF,” is how she puts it.

Every year, she went back to Hawaii, where she was born, once she realize that, while she was gone, change happened–overpowering change happened. So then she began going once a year, so that change could not sneak up on her so fast, so that she could see it and feel it, and be aware of it. Was the sun about to rise? See it as if for the first time–there, this very second. Feel the huge mystery of it. Was Desolation Forest, with its bleached and leafless trunks and dark sand as far as the eye could see stretched out there before you in all its beautiful loneliness? See it, feel it now. Put everything aside now. See, feel, only this place., only this moment. Perhaps, if you were so lucky, then some of the beauty of it would find its way into your art. It was not that your focused, attention made it happen. It was that it could not happen WITHOUT your focused attention.

Nils lived far out in the woods, on a forested hillside, off the nearest paved road, onto a gravel road, onto another gravel road, beyond all mailboxes, beyond the sight of another house, where bits of sky were visible way up there, beyond tree tops, where horizons were not visible.  It required a different sense of focus, the kind of focus that would let you collaborate, gather materials, create a horse in a barn without horses,  create the bones, wrap them like a cage around clay pieces. Feel the horse-ness of this one-of-a-kind horse, its delightful height, the space in it and around it.  Still the trees towering there, the bare branches twisted like a perpetual curtain between you and the world. You had to engage the world somehow, not isolate yourself. And so maybe the way to do that was to tie your new painting to your tractor and allow it to bump and scrape, face down, along the road behind you–allow the earth to “texturize” it in whatever way it could, or would.  Or maybe it was even better to build a new studio, to welcome a new wife, her half and his half, and be there, together, he on his side, she on hers, she with her wonderful collection of materials gathered from everywhere, reassembling themselves for her, and he  with his oversized  blank canvases on the high and open wall opposite, waiting for a new mark, a new line, a new color, and assemblage of color, a new nude magically appearing there, out of the lines. Or, as Nils sometimes put it, “I paint naked ladies now. Sometimes I put clothes on them.” It was a place where light came in, and passed overhead, and new lives took shape–with  light hands, and a light heart, with just a little mischief in it. It was how their days kept on dawning.

There is something so lovely, and so meaningful, about the clay–about touching the clay, Toshiko says. “I tell my students that the piece is ’rounder than round.’ You hear it. You touch it. It has life on the inside. There is a kind of pressure, pushing back. Maybe they understand.”

Maybe they do. But some of us listen, and care, and listen again, and keep on caring, and keep on listening. And we see her, and see Nils and Diane speaking, and creating, and being conscious together, and  feel our own consciousness rise with and because of them, feel so much a part of what they and their wonderful spirits have made possible–and so so grateful for them.