Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

Why Mako Fujimura Left New York City for the Country

The artist’s move to Fuji farm follows a tradition of creatives finding new life away from bustling cities.
Daniel A. Siedell 9.25.12

Cities have attracted artists, musicians, and writers for centuries. Patronage, an educated audience that values the arts, and, perhaps most important, a robust community of creative peers to encourage and challenge artistic practice, have made cities fundamental to the history of art.  However, the artists and writers I’ve been thinking about recently have, at crucial moments in their careers, left dynamic urban centers for the country. Herman Melville left Manhattan in 1850 for Troy in upstate New York, for a 160-acre farm he called Arrowhead to write his masterpiece Moby-Dick; Norwegian painter Edvard Munch left Berlin and its fertile bohemian avant-garde community in 1909 for a solitary, rural life in his native Norway; Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock left New York City in the late 1940s for the rural setting of The Springs, Long Island, followed by friend Willem de Kooning in the late ’50s. And many more—Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, Anselm Kiefer—have left the city to do their most important work.

And now Makoto Fujimura, after many years of working in and for New York City as an artist and creative catalyst, has moved his home and studio to an old farmhouse outside of Princeton, New Jersey, which he has come to call Fuji farm.  Because they deal in and work with the ineffable, ephemeral, and transitory states of experiences and feelings, artists are particularly shaped and affected by their environment. How has riding the subway numerous times each day over the last decade shaped Fujimura’s thought patterns? How has painting in a small studio effected the scope of his work? And now, his thinking, reading, writing, and painting will be shaped by new stimuli and new hobbies, like long walks, early nights and early mornings, bird watching, building and shaping his studio, and the quiet.

What are we to make of this move of the artist from the city to the country, from the urban center to the rural periphery, from community to isolation?

photograph by Alec Casto

The city offers intense concentration. Artists can see great art in art museums, the newest art in galleries, attend lectures and other social events that bring them into contact with artists, collectors, dealers, and critics. The art news cycle runs on a daily basis, and the institutions that are necessary for professional artistic practice are found in the city and are responsive to this news cycle.  Yet the blessing of intense concentration is also a curse. It can limit the scope of the artist’s experience to the micro-level, in which seasonal fashion trends take on significance they do not deserve. And the institutional, social aspects of artistic practice—going to events, meeting the right people—can gradually become the content of an artist’s work, as he or she becomes an art world “insider” rather than an artist. In fact, cities can breed conservatism among critics, curators, dealers, and artists who are fearful to go against fashion trends, upset convention, and risk marginalization from their peers.

For just as artists have by necessity worked in cities, in close proximity to patrons and an educated audience, many have lived at enmity with the achievement of Cain, and, at one time or another, felt compelled to leave it for the country. They have forsaken concentration for space—space to think, to work, to reconnect with nature, to shun the obsession with art world gossip, to take off the blinders and drink more deeply from the waters of the living history of art, music, and literature that have endured over time.  Time away from the city allows the artist to make culture differently. For Fujimura, it allows him to transform a bucolic red barn into a spacious working studio, develop a bird-watching hobby, and take long walks with his wife, Judy.

photograph by Kevin Casto

The escape to the city is not an idealization of the country, as if it gets the artist closer to nature, or closer to God. In fact, it does just the opposite. It forces the artist to experience her exile anew. Art often contradicts our comfort with the world, reminding us that we are exiles and wanderers, testifying that the world is not as it should be. The city offers a place for wanderers to congregate together, perhaps becoming a little too comfortable with this diasporic community of lonely artistic exiles, turning them into a gang of hipsters. The country forces the artist to once again confront his exile, and do so alone.

Art is about discontinuity and contradiction, which is how grace is experienced in the world, as an alien intrusion into a world that deceives us into believing that we are defined by what we do, not by what Christ has done. And so we are compelled to prove ourselves, to make something that justifies our existence. But art is not just doing and making, it is also receiving, and hearing. It is not just an achievement; it is a gift. It is devoting one’s life to something so futile, inefficient, and in many ways useless, that it becomes a means of grace. Cities, with their concentration of doers and achievers, full of those obsessed with going from good to great, can pose challenges to cultivating a passivity that is absolutely necessary for art.

photograph by Alec Casto

The city is indispensible for artistic practice. An artist cannot develop without the concentration, the creative density that cities offer. And yet to make work that is not solely defined by contemporary fashions, locked into and responsive to parochial concerns, artists need to develop ways, at times, to escape it. Not every artist needs a Walden Pond, Arrowhead, or Fuji farm. But every artist needs to step away from the urban pressure to do, to build, to transform, to engage.

The country can also offer a means by which the artist restores her work into the larger, more diverse fabric of work. The intense concentration in the city tends to narrow the artist’s vocational scope—everyone she knows is an artist, critic, curator, and drawing a paycheck from the art world somehow, even it it’s sitting at the reception desk at an art museum. In the country, the artist befriends the mechanic, gets to know the dairy farmer or beekeeper down the road, and begins to think about her paintings in the context of producing honey, milk, and getting the car to run. Munch often placed his precious paintings outside in the Norwegian cold in order to toughen them up, see how they would fare out in the real world of freezing rain and bird poop. The country seems to offer that experience for the artist herself. Can I still be an artist without the trappings?

photograph by Kevin Casto

Fujimura’s retrospective monograph project, Golden Sea, combined with his move from the city to the country, marks a watershed for his artistic development. Fuji farm is no escape or retirement. And the artist himself recognizes the importance of this transition, explaining to me:  Last December, as I headed to Japan for an exhibit, I left the ‘Ground Zero’ loft that we spent the last 14 years in and raised our three children in, and I came home to a farmhouse in Princeton on Christmas Eve. The move is a culmination of many years of wrestling for both Judy and I to gauge our journey together, to determine the best path to weave our future together.

As it was for Melville and Munch, Fuji farm is a sign that Fujimura is rolling up his sleeves to dig deeper as an artist and as a human being, to produce work for the future that is not defined by the art-world categories with which he’s fought, but responsive to his own changes as an artist, but also as a husband, father, grandfather. Yet this future requires passivity—to receive art and life as a disruptively gracious gift from a disruptively gracious God.

photograph by Kevin Casto

Daniel A. Siedell is director of Theological & Cultural Practices at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and curator of LiberateNet.org, the online resource ministry of Tullian Tchividjian. Before joining the staff at Coral Ridge he spent 15 years as an art history professor and museum curator. He is Scholar-in-Residence at the New City Arts Initiative in Charlottesville, Virginia, during 2012-13. He blogs weekly at Patheos.

photograph by Alec Casto

Learning from the Artists about People and Place

by W. David O. Taylor  9.10.12
Christianity Today

I am told that novelists approach their work from different starting points.  Some begin with a theme, like the fear of the unknown, as is often the case with science fiction writers. Others begin with families, as is nearly always the case with Pulitzer Prize–winning novelists. Some begin with a character or a historical time period, such as ancient Rome. Still others begin with a place: Casablanca; Port Royal, Kentucky; the Shire. I sometimes wonder if human beings behave like novelists, as it were, especially in their decision to move from one place to another. Some move to be nearer to family. Some move for a job. Some move for the excitement of a city’s culture. My friend Melody willingly left a community of dear friends in Austin in order to relocate herself to Seattle. She said she “fit better” there. The Northwest was her kind of place: cloudy, cool, mossy, saturated with grey and black wardrobes. I couldn’t understand her decision at first. Why leave all these people that know you and love you to move to a place where she would be an instant stranger?

Sometimes you leave your hometown in order to find your place elsewhere. Sometimes you leave your place of birth only to return years later and find that you belong there after all. Or more grandly, as Kathleen Norris puts it, “A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.” Here is where you belong. Here is where you will stay put. It is your place and it is our place together. Norris has her place: the Dakotas. Eugene Peterson has his too: Lakeside, Montana. It’s where his people come from, it’s where he intends to remain till he dies. Melody now has her place. Wendell Berry has his place, and Bilbo Baggins has his own too.

My uncle just yesterday sold the house that his parents bought in 1947. It’s been Uncle John’s place for 65 years. The house is perched a handful of yards west of Southern Methodist University’s campus in Dallas, Texas, 3028 McFarlin Road to be exact. It is the place my sisters and I have loved above all places in America. As children, after driving five days in our yellow Suburban through the pockmarked highways of Mexico, northward on our way from Guatemala, where my parents served as missionaries, to the redbrick front porch of my grandparents, we couldn’t wait to rummage through the cereal box cabinet and the Dallas Morning News TV guide so we could find when the cartoons came on. My grandparents’ home was our one stable place during our years as missionary kids.

photograph by Alec Casto

My confession? I feel misplaced in my current city.  While I know plenty of people who thoroughly love Durham, North Carolina, I fluctuate between total ambivalence and intense aversion to the city. It is a city that irritates me almost daily. After living here for three years, I have made my peace with the fact that Durham will be the first city in my life that I will be happy to leave.  Despite the fact that it hosts the annual American Dance Festival, that Burt’s Bees has set up its headquarters here, that Branford Marsalis chooses to call it home, and that Richard Florida placed it at the top of his list of creative class metros, I feel no love for Durham.

I genuinely wish it were otherwise. My wife and I struggle with mixed feelings. Are we being selfish? Are we not trying hard enough? Are we hopelessly, blindly infatuated with Texas, our home state? We do keep trying to connect with the city. It is the “City of Medicine” and the “Cameron Crazies,” after all! But we still sense that at some level we are misplaced here.

I know we are not alone in feeling misplaced. Joseph son of Jacob lived nearly his entire life misplaced from his father’s house. The prophet Daniel, like the people of Israel and all refugees ever since, was forcibly misplaced from his homeland. Migrant workers make a habit of living misplaced, though rarely to their liking. A divorced couple willingly flees to opposite coasts in order to escape the pain of hurtful relations. Some of us live in towns that feel strange to us, and it’s an easy temptation to resent this place where we do not belong. It’s easy to resent God for putting us here.

photograph by Alec Casto

But artists come along and perform an invaluable service. For those of us who feel a tenuous or adverse relationship to our places of residence, artists help us to see that, in fact, God is happily at work here, quietly making grace happen in unexpected ways, gently rebuking our stubborn refusal to see that salvation and sanctification are occurring in this place—this street, this humidity, this church, this grocery store, these people. As Peterson remarks in his book Subversive Spirituality, describing the effect of novelists on his work as a pastor:  Every time . . . a street is walked, noticing the details, observing the texture and color, insisting on the immediate particularity, the gospel is served, for space is cleared and location provided for yet another spin-off of the Incarnation, most of which came to its definitive form in small towns and on country roads.

This is what the installation artist Craig Goodworth, recently featured in the This Is Our City film “You Are Where You Live,” does in a warehouse in the city of Phoenix, Arizona. He takes misplaced things and places them in a sphere of meaning: Arizona corn grain from Casa Grande; leached water from the warehouse itself; Desert Durum wheat grains and the cornmeal from Arizona Grain; a donkey from Maricopa County; asphalt from nearby; steel rails from 20 yards outside the building. Put together, the materials tell a story about Phoenix.  It’s a place-based installation, Goodworth says, and it’s a way of telling Phoenicians: “Here is the stuff of your place, and it’s good stuff.” Inviting his audience to touch the materials, to be near them, to smell them and know them, is a way to help them love their city. It’s also a way, as Peterson reminds us, to protect us from gospel-killers—”grand abstractions and standoffish condescensions” that keep us in a negative stance towards our given place.

photograph by Alec Casto

 

In watching this short film, I find my discontented heart softened by lyrical images of blues and yellows and of people moving in and out of the lovely stuff that makes up a place as particular and as broken as my own. Artists like Goodworth offer us a great gift. Their gift is to help us see our place of residence as lovingly as God does. At the very least, the City team’s film stirs in me a renewed desire to not give up on Durham, North Carolina.

W. David O. Taylor, former arts pastor of Hope Church in Austin, Texas, is pursuing doctoral studies in theology and the arts at Duke Divinity School. The editor of For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (Baker), he and his wife. Phaedra, currently live in Durham.

 

photograph by Alec Casto

During our vacation last week we were attending a writing workshop that my daughter is involved with, and I had the opportunity to listen to some wonderfully creative speakers.  I also had the time to return to using my sketch book.  It’s amazing how easy it is to allow life to become too busy and not allow yourself the time you need to just draw.  It does not matter how good or bad the image is; it’s the process of allowing your self to wander.  This sketch was made while listening to a lecture about Beowulf.  I really enjoyed the process; I hope this will encourage you to pursue your creative self!