“Beauty is truth – truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” Almost daily, on my morning walks I pass by this (JOHN KEATS) quote, etched into the exterior facade of the Norton Museum of Art. It never ages and has become, for me, a daily affirmation. For, is that not precisely what we do as artists? Show up fully to the scenes and subjects before us? Uncover their truths, embody them somehow, and then go off and express them for the wonder of others?
I'm not someone who tends to equate or define the truth as a mere set of facts. For me, the truth lies well below a surface - simmering as some utterance of a soul. A lifetime of creative practice (and of studying the works of other photographers) has shown me that we rarely arrive at such utterances by calculating and calling all the shots in our picture making. We get there by loosening our grip, by allowing for the limits of our certainties, and by getting out of the picture.
"No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well as the truth," wrote HENRY DAVID THOREAU in the pages of Walden. I could not agree more, and to mine it takes work. When I cue this approach of "stepping out of the picture," I'm not suggesting an absence of effort in our creative expression of the people and the moments we witness. But, what happens when we allow the exertion of the technical orchestration of a capture to subside in order to pour that agency into clearing the mind and heightening the senses so that we hear and see our subjects and convey truths from some higher frequency? It's really that simple of a shift. And, we well know the answer. This is a reminder...
DAMON HIGGINS is an award winning photographer for the Palm Beach Post/Palm Beach Daily News. Throughout his 20 year career with the publication, his images have been widely revered by readers for their powerful ability to stop time. It's September in southern Florida. The shoreline pulses a softer soundtrack. As he can attest, in these 90 degree plus days, the treasure trove of February content is not bubbling over. Yet still, an endless humanity endures. The above (words and image) were originally published in the Sunday, August 29th edition of the Palm Beach Daily News. As evident, the content is about one (and only one) thing. It conveys a quiet utterance of the soul - seizes you up as it does. Is Yakov (the subject) in prayer? His companion testimony further reveals, padding the capture's poetry. The moment and the composition are extraordinary precisely because the photographer did NOT plot and intrude in its unfolding. He simply noticed what he noticed, listened in fully, followed some inner stirring, and caught it. There's a collective win in his doing so.
"When I arrived at The Post, the paper was booming. There was this HUGE budget and every photographer had their own assignments, as directed by our editors. Now, that's not the case. Because of our drastically reduced staffing, the photographers have to go out each day and find their own assignments. We have to force ourselves to go out and look for creative stuff. So, you train yourself - train yourself to see what's different each day. You look for the light, and what's happening in it."
"I drive slowly by this stretch of beach multiple times each day, just quietly observing the nature of things to see what shows up. Last week, I saw Yakov standing in the water just staring out to the sky. I watched him for like 20 minutes, his back to the sand. He just looked to me like he was doing something. What it was I didn't know. After asking his permission, I took some shots. While making my pictures, I actually asked him to please not turn towards my lens. I didn't want him to be aware of me. When I got the shot, I knew it was special. Then, Yakov shared his story - why he was there. He wanted everyone to know what the surf does for his knees."
"What have I learned through the thousands of pictures I've captured in my work? In the end... it's not about the photo. It's about the people in them - who they are, their story. For me, just meeting people is the beautiful part."
“Beauty is truth – truth beauty – that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”
The motivations for the endless hours we spend behind these lenses are unique for each of us. The common thread? To tell one story, or another. The evidence shows that we BEST honor the histories we document when we remember to lower our own volumes and simply step ourselves OUT of the picture. Truth is beauty? Often, that is all we need to know.
Above image by Damon Higgins, as published in the August 29, 2021 edition of the Palm Beach Daily News.
Damon Higgins joined the photography staff at The Palm Beach Post in 2001 where, in addition to being named Cox Newspapers’ Rookie of the Year, he has also been named Cox Newspapers’ Photographer of the Year.His work has appeared in a wide range of well known and respected publications, including Success Magazine, ESPN the Magazine, and Palm Beach Life Magazine. To learn more about Damon and his work, please visit DAMONHIGGINS.COM.
Knowing things for certain has a way of hijacking the imagination we were each born to follow. Yet through our moments, hours, and days... on we forage, striving for certainty. Exhausting and depleting is how I find today's results' oriented existence. And so I turn to my artwork - often using my creative process as a practice field for disabling the task-oriented mind. In that space of free expression, I'm released. For some moments, there is nothing to solve.
I continue to be struck by the places we can go when the calculating and the plotting ceases. As of late, spirals and circles have been corralling my attention. Channeling my childhood perhaps? Summertime has me drifting back to long lasting lollipops and Spirograph sessions, looping wheels and rings over and over just to see where it all led. In those moments there was little demand to produce. It was okay to not have all of the answers. As in those free form hours of my youth, I've found a soothe in just following the lead of my current spherical callings. And surprise, surprise... in the ease, SPIN, a new collection of work, came to meet me.
"YOU MUST LOOK WITHOUT LOOKING TO MAKE THE PERFECT CIRCLE..."
SPIN is an overture to wander in... a fine art series of visual prompts which invite the viewer to still the moment, step away from today's swirling existence, and connect back to a single point of focus. Simply designed, the collection welcomes back wonder and a slow reveal. Available as perfect square metallic prints, and as (extraordinary) one inch thick acrylic photo blocks, SPIN twists the vibrant colorscape here in southern Florida, as originally captured through photographic images. The works' purpose? To offer a polychromatic anchor in which to breathe, reconnect with stillness and disable the incline to unriddle.
Tell me ONE thing you do not know?
above quote excerpted from "how to draw a perfect circle", by terrance hayes
The best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell thinks people should be more disagreeable. “A disagreeable person (as defined by psychologists) is someone who does not require the approval of others in order to pursue what they intend to pursue.” In a recent podcast conversation, Gladwell shared this particular unpacking of such individuals. In praise of this character attribute, he furthered that perhaps we, as a culture, sell short just how integral this trait is — particularly for people who “endeavor to improve our world or drive innovation.”
“If you are someone who can’t move a muscle unless the world aligns behind you and pats you on the back, there’s a limit to what you can accomplish.”
Offensive, unpleasant, obnoxious, and abominable… all words which could seamlessly be swapped out for “disagreeable" in its familiar interpretation. The term is customarily lodged in such a light, yet as Gladwell posits in the above language, the characteristic is the X factor in terms of breakthrough. Through the ages, nowhere has this trait been more critical than in the creative life where innovation is endlessly driven. We make art to move ourselves and possibly to move others. In staying true to the former, we make the work that at some point may achieve the latter. Losing the “please” factor liberates our practice and our process and opens a truth fluency in our creative pursuits. It is precisely how we get to extraordinary.
Archie Bunker, Larry David’s character on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Lucy (sister of Linus)… all amply embody the “obnoxious” quotient and could be deemed consummate disagreeables. But, in looking through the trait’s alternate lens, Vincent van Gogh, Zadie Smith, Jackson Pollack, Miles Davis, Jack Kerouac, David Lynch and the likes might be as well. Absent any concern for applause, in their creating, grammar is defied, lines are blurred, mediums are mixed and instruments are unconventionally rigged and tuned, all in order to artistically express themselves in the only means the know how.
Singling out the painter Mark Rothko, I devote a chapter (titled, Who Cares) on this truth in my new book SUPERFLOW Light Up the Artist in You (Nine Rivers, 2021). For the first twenty-five years of his career, Rothko made his paintings on nights and weekends — due to his day job as a teacher—selling zero to few works well into the 1950s. During this chapter of his life, he simply had no interest in defending his work to an audience that could not understand him and his bolt from tradition. Rothko refused to let their confusion derail his world of imagination. So, he continued his slow probe of layers and color blocks, insisting on a creative dialogue that included only him and his art.
How is a “disagreeable" nature integral to our art making? As modeled by Rothko, by refusing to let one’s brushstroke be directed by some external source (i.e. praise), songs and poems and plays are incubated and gestated from the interior — that field of pure imagination. Can you imagine the wonders of which the world would have been swiped had Rothko allowed his inner wisdom to be hijacked for the sake of the high fives of another?
We can practice being disagreeable through the ongoing checking of our personal motives. It’s a powerful probe to pause in whatever creative thread you are following right now and inquire in to weigh the degree to which any external approval might be compromising your true vision. This is not an exercise in which to beat oneself up, but rather just to notice what you notice and in that recognition perhaps dial back that diversion.
“An artist is a person whose hunger refuses yesterday’s bread.”
Today’s group think culture is endlessly pounding home a message of compliance. Of course conformity makes sense in certain of life’s respects, but creative expression is not the place in which to practice passivity — not if you hope to make the rhymes and pictures and paintings that astonish. Creativity extends to each of us a distinct platform for practicing and flexing the disagreeable muscle, to make small protests as we say “so what,” and then go see for ourself. When we do, we unlatch the gate to making work that is limitless and boundless and pure. Stay hungry, practice, study, practice, breathe, practice and be well. And to that mix… allow some space for being disagreeable?
Corrective measures — something I find myself endlessly charting right now in order to counter the fog which seems so determined to linger. Concentration is perhaps the prize I am mostly seeking in my plotting, and fortunately there are art museums. One of my go to upgrades in blurry moments is to take myself to these havens of wonder.
Art… it stands ever ready to meet us when the commotion of life depletes. Sometimes softly, and at other times more audibly, yet rarely does it fail to deliver. In its presence I reclaim my curiosity, source resilience and am reminded of some other way. A recent visit to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, found me gathering such offerings. Standing before Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, (1999) created by the Swedish-born American sculptor, Claes Oldenburg (in partnership with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen) my correction arrived.
Oldenburg is best known for his public art installations which typically feature over-sized replicas of everyday objects like the typewriter eraser. His works are a slow build, with an extended period of pre-op work playing an integral element to the finished product. “We work our way through one image after another in words and sketches, testing them in models that can serve as the starting point of fabrication in large scale.”
Well before taking on his actual works, Oldenburg immerses himself in the practice of building “studies”. Studies have a long history in the visual arts, tracing as far back as the Italian Renaissance. They are drawings, sketches, models or paintings done in preparation for a finished piece. For the artist, they serve as visual notes and are often employed to explore the problems involved in rendering subjects and to sketch out its elements.
Oldenburg’s studies of his towering typewriter eraser are installed just steps away from the grand finale, and these initial iterations speak of what feels like some bygone era of making art, offering insights into the sculptor's slow process of acquainting himself with his subject. The work's early glimpses also drive home the fact that the extraordinary is not built on swift glimpses. It is born of staying and waiting and following one’s questions. While the sculpture (pictured at top) is the “wow,” it takes on an entirely different scale alongside the hints of its origins.
Although I am not one who sculpts, how might I weave "studies" into my practice(s) of making pictures and building sentences? And, what do these visual notes require? Time and single pointed attention. And, perhaps most importantly patience — well before any first notes are played or brushstrokes are applied. And just like that, I find myself miles away from my speedy and scattered reality — transported back to wonder by this history of another which has so powerfully illustrated that studies translate to work, in progress. I have seen for myself that beyond offering an artist fresh insights, studies force a slower climb. They add layers (and hours and days, and perhaps weeks) to the process, which of course runs counter to much of the messaging assailing us in today’s results oriented culture. Yet, these layers create time and space to consider multiple orientations and compositions, and to refine one’s vision. Fingers are not snapped to suddenly make happen such magnificence.
“A request for concentration isn’t always answered, but people engaged in many disciplines have found ways to invite it in.”
I’m in the habit of calling upon sculptures and paintings and assorted other works of fine art in my “requesting”. Museum field trips are my bridge back to me. What is the place or space or experience that sorts you out? The invitation that the author Jane Hirshfield refers to in the above language takes the shape it will for each of us individually. Roam where you want to? The point is to keep making the appeal.
Evertime… Does it mean there exists an infinite number of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, years and decades? Is it a field in which one flows boundary-less and free? Is it just two rather ordinary words hitched together by some thinker bold enough to build a vocabulary all their own? The website definitions.net explains evertime as, “the exact moment of each actual moment.” Hmmm….
I look down at my handwritten notes to self, and evertime stares quizzingly up at me. I think that probably I swiped the term while off field-tripping… snatched it from one of those small plaques installed alongside works of art in museums and galleries. Likely the two words were selected and fused together by some curator to say some thing, just so, about a painting or a photograph or a master work of some fashion.
To that stranger in the gallery or museum who strung together the two rather ordinary words and left for me the cue, I now silently bow. His or her or their curious blend plucked me from my drift and for a few moments dusted off the haze in which I am accustomed to roaming. They, and likely the accompanying art, were cause for some note on my part. And, here in a nothing special notebook, among my assorted scribblings and jottings, I uncover evertime. Another chance meeting with a message that clearly has something more to say.
Evertime… as I allow it into my morning practice of expressing something, I am reminded of the edgeless horizon. As I segue into some free writing, I take its abstract directive to slow my steps and take the time my imagining demands. As I do, the gate unlatches into a wide open where I do not know the time, or the answer. And, that for now, makes all the difference in the energy which I bring to the words and sentences I find myself placing on the page. Sentences lead into one another, uncalculated, as paragraphs begin to build. My mind take me back to 7 or 8 years old, carefree and up in the air on a swing. Carving through time and space. No destination in mind, but the muscles are freely flexing.
“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”
"Whether field tripping or grocery shopping, have ready a small (nothing special) notebook at all times," is an invitation I offer to readers in Chapter Five of my new book SUPERFLOW Light Up the Artist in You. It is not an earth shattering directive by any means. Why is it so worth one's time? For just this… in order to record those hues, quotes, faces, soundscapes, landscapes, threads of billboard copy, song lyrics or peculiar word blends that speak up to you. Regardless of your medium, notice these things that tug at you in some way and catch them. For one day these random seemingly records will gather you and serve as power sparks when making your first brushstrokes or sketching out your opening scenes. My experience has been that they find you for some eventual purpose. And, though your communion with them may be well down the road, such jottings are powerful allies in the creative life. Take them as they come. Trust that they will find a way into your expression as needed. When they do? Sift into their riddle, and paddle out…