All the red threads are pointing to...

If all goes well, I'm about to babble about so many things and make such leaps of reason that one newsletter could hardly contain it all.

Overall, it may have the narrative appearance of one of those maps that an obsessed cop with a tragic history makes to try and assemble the fragments of evidence that he's dug up through dubious means on the trail of a kidnapper who's M.O. matches the strange disappearance and assumed death of his own daughter which broke up his marriage and pushed him to the very edge of his sanity because all of the red threads are wound around thin pins and all seem to point to...

Anyway, long descriptions like that may be the primary reason that this will be my first 2-part Spacesuit.

We'll start with myths, then move to the importance of holding on loosely, all while following the trajectory of a painting that I've been working on. For years. Then we'll examine the taught red threads of this painting and find that they point to another revelation: That more than the usual fear of success, I possess a more vague fear which keeps me from finishing things.

At least this is my trajectory for now; my intent as I leave The Shire. I haven't written part 2 yet, so who knows what cave I'll end up in, and what slimy little bug-eyed fish-eater will be biting at my ring finger tomorrow. I hope you enjoy!

1.1: The beautiful thing about Myths....

...is that the work has been done for you. Mythology uses story and archetypes to give a name to all the little cogs that spin in us. So, as an artist who is interested in commenting on the world or describing how you feel inside, your job is half-done. Instead of years of self-analyzing and generating your own stories out of whole cloth, you can find commonalities in myth and interpret or personalize them.

They are so pregnant (forgive the future-pun) with metaphor and imagery and thunder and lightning that you'd be kind of foolish to strike out on your own. Wanting to express something universal about human nature and ignoring mythology would be like going into the wilderness of your childhood without the map that your grandfather died making for you. Of course you'll probably get to some of the same places, but you'll likely take a longer and tougher route and you might miss some great sights on the way.

Or you may end up just walking around in circles until you run out of food and die of exposure or some fucked-up spider bite.

Myths can tell you which mushrooms are edible, which plants not to touch.

Patrick Garvin made this chart of story characters that follow Joseph Campbell's Monomyth. It's not ground breaking, but it's a salient point about how creators can use old mythologies to make new things. (You can click it to see it up-close in your browser.)

I'm not insinuating that all artist should to use Campbell's Monomyth in their work, there are millions of mythological stories across thousands of cultures in history, and any little bit of them can describe something that moves in us. They are waiting for you to use them in order to build something new.

The Greek myth of Leda and the Swan does not follow Campbell's rules. To me, it's one of those myths that is open to interpretation. It's a shady cove, an eddy in the river of story, a place where you can spend some time. And frankly, it's so weird that it tickles your imagination and asks to be appropriated.

• The Myth: Leda is raped by Zeus in the form of a swan, on the same night she has also become pregnant by her husband Tyndareus. She lays two eggs which hatch 4 children. The order of the births, who was in each egg and sometimes, who is the father of each child is disputed. But they are: Castor and Pollux (The Gemini) Helen (who's ship-launching beauty will ignite the Trojan War) and Clytemnestra (who will later take up a symbol of Greece the Labrys, and behead her husband Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter to the Gods in order to gain a good wind.) 

• In art: A look at this Pinterest collection will point out that MANY artists through the ages have tackled this myth, from Michelangelo and Klimt to Cy Twombly. Salvador Dali even designed a Leda Chair that he put into a painting, which some mad wizards actually made.

Historically, it gained the most popularity as a subject in the 16th century, a time when it was considered imprudent to depict two humans in the act of making love. Zeus' form was a convenient workaround for artists interested in showing the sexual appetite of man. Through the years the scene has been portrayed as literal and as allegorical, sometimes even provincial; newly-hatched little babies at Leda's feet crawling around with eggshells as hats, with complete disregard for the fact that soon these chubby little egg-born rape babies will become harbingers of battle and leave whole cities burning in their beautiful wake.

And some artists get at the surreality of the act itself, the physical weirdness of it, and the doom that came from Zeus' appetite.

W.B. Yeats wrote a sonnet about it in 1924:

          A sudden blow: the great wings beating still

          Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

          By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,

          He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

          How can those terrified vague fingers push

          The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

          And how can body, laid in that white rush,

          But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

          A shudder in the loins engenders there

          The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

          And Agamemnon dead.

                          Being so caught up,

          So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

          Did she put on his knowledge with his power

          Before the indifferent beak could let her drop? 

 

Yeats, right?

1.2: A brief sidebar on sketching

Sketching comes in two varieties, really.

One is working on your craft. Exploring your work habits and developing your skills in your medium. In this manner of sketching ideas are not really that important, because you're not trying to say anything in particular. Or better put; you're trying to say nothing, and learn how to say it better.

But sketching can also be about building and developing ideas. And the craft in this way is secondary; you're not worried if you drew the most attractive arm because you're exploring the stuff strictly between your ears. Gluing together ideas, in order to make something that looks new.

I say this because I think it's good to acknowledge which one of these you may be engaged in at any given time.

And I think people sometimes use the results of the first variety to explain why they think they are not capable of the second variety.

1.3: On classic rock's contribution to the understanding of your creative dance with the universe of ideas.

As we’ve discussed in this newsletter before, there’s a general impression of artists as the sole architects and builders of their work; making detailed plans and then bending the materials they choose in accordance to that plan, without influence.

Artists are lauded for their singular and unswerving vision. But this is as silly a stereotype as the smoldering, brooding, paint-smudged and pony-tailed artist in a dingy industrial loft from an episode of "The Red Shoe Diaries" (Editors note: The astute amongst you will note that's a picture of Fernando Allende from "Murder She Wrote" Season 1, Episode 14: "Paint Me a Murder". I just thought The Red Shoes Diaries was a sexier reference. And the smoldering archetype of an 80's artist is undeniable, especially in orange cable knit.)

Most artists know that it’s tempting death to hold on too tightly to a piece.

The process of making something takes time, and in that time you will be influenced or put-upon. You may get bored with your idea or you may learn something, you may realize you inadvertently started a sentence with the work and (even though it wasn’t a part of your intention) you feel compelled to finish it. Sometimes you get better in the middle, and want to start over. Sometimes art dies on the table; the EKG goes flat or it’s lung collapses and the only way to make it better is to put a new hole in it. (Paint me a murder, indeed.)

All of theses things will happen when you make things, and a million more things besides. And you must roll with them or you'll go nuts. Being a good artist is like being a boxer; always moving and assessing, dancing with it, waiting for opportunity. Keeping your hands up to shield yourself from the raining blows of fear, thrown out by reaching the extents of your ability and by being miles from your intention. But always being fluid, and ready to switch your stance and strike at any bit of open space you can find.

Of course I can't claim to speak to the experience of every artist across every medium. I'm sure there are creators that would scoff at my assertion, artists that work like Zeus; pressing themselves onto their art and filling eggs out of force of will. In that way of looking at it, it isn't rape because Leda isn't the name of a person, it's the name of some raw material. She is flat wood planks and a wicker roof; there for the building and quick to burn.

But I have found that the work which moves me the most has been built by the artist not being a force, but being a director. Conducting the conversation between ideas and materials. Get something down and then, like an uppity teenager, let it talk back to you. Start the conversation, then direct the exchange loosely. When it gets flat, break it down again. Be ruthless regarding your contribution. If it tells you half way through that it really doesn’t want to be the thing you intend, then listen to it. Because your intent is not precious.

That canvas (or song or dance or anything creative) is a tin-can on a string, and the other end goes out to wherever good ideas come from. So to my way of thinking, you’d be short sighted to mistake the conversation for noise and continue to talk into the vacuum, instead of listen. Without the conversation, the biggest idea you have to put in there is you, and unfortunately you aren’t important. You just make pictures (or write songs or dance.) You need that other side of the space as a partner.

An artist's work is a byproduct, a memento of a time when you tried to assume the other side's knowledge and power, before it's indifferent beak would let you drop.

I believe 38 Special said it best; You gotta hold on loosely but not let go. If you cling too tightly you're definitely going to lose control.

1.4: Wherein I hint at the role that intuition plays

At the time I did this sketch I wasn't thinking of myth or tin cans on strings or anything like that. I was holding the reigns loosely. There was this chair; an heirloom in my ex-wife's family that sat in our studio for years, and a desire to practice life drawing. And both thoughts congealed in this sketch and grew into a possible statement reagrding sexuality.

And this was clearly one of those other sketches, the developing ideas kind. I know that because I cringe at the perspective, and the shoddy figure. the chair isn't accurate, the light source is off, the colors don't hold up to scrutiny, and God, those shoes. But it doesn't matter because the idea is in there, Intact. I had found an avocado seed and I now needed to push some toothpicks into it so that I could dangle it in a glass of water on the window sill and see if it would sprout.

The chair had fascinating curves, it reminded me of the chairs in UP, their use of shape to extend personality. The chairs assume character. Almost Like Anthropomorphism. Like Zeus becoming that randy-ass swan in that Greek myth I'd heard about.

And there they are, the silly connections that happen by staying open. And the only thing that makes them more than just silly notions is your Intuition. But more on that next time.

So then I was off to explore the myth and and the work that had been made previously. Some used a similar compositional sense: the off-kilter almost concentric arcs of the swan's wings set inside yet in opposition to, the off-kilter and almost concentric curved legs of Leda. Intuition reminded me of the curves in the chair and I found a subtle reference between it and the straining figure (A tiny detail like that; finding a visual rhyme to exploit or some other trigger that makes you feel like Indiana Jones about to lift that gold statue off the alter, can be a nudge that changes the orbit of a project for me into something worthwhile, and another reason to keep a light touch while working.

I thought about how most of them had Leda on her back so I found interest in the fact that mine didn't. If the chair was the swan, she looked like she was in the process of pushing it over. Yet still keeping her knee (and the figure's weight) on the base meant that she was possibly going to break it in half instead. The idea of trying to accomplish that tension in the figure was daunting and interesting and if i could pull it off, it could be a new thing to say.

1.5: Fear rears it's ugly head and shakes loose it's mane of dazzling sparks.

At this point, I had a sketch and a notion tying it to a myth. The relationship was visual and emotional. I researched previous works in this mode and found that nothing looked like mine, so I had a contribution to the collective of work around the myth, and also a growing personal expression.

That's enough to take this idea seriously, so of course I put it away for over 3 years.

---

Thanks for reading. Part 2 will be out soon, wherein we will bring all of this around to some kind of point and I will also endeavor to make you do a David Lynch impression in your head. Hopefully you find this interesting enough to continue.

A Note: A lot of this borrows pretty heavily from correspondence I've been having with some of you. I've learned a heck of a lot about myself and my process by talking with you all. I thank you deeply and I hope this is worth it.

Images: 1: Patrick Garvin's monomyth character chart. I really enjoy how there is no comic relief character in the Matrix. 2: Thinking about getting a cable-knit sweater? Mullet it over for a while first. 3: A portrait of me in my studio (Talk about smoldering!) 4: Egads those shoes. 5: Tears started flying out of my eyes as soon as I googled those dumb chairs. Thanks Pixar for making the new Bambi's mom.

As always there is an archive for this newsletter at nealvonflue.com/newsletter/newsletter-archive And I'm always looking for more subscribers, so if you know someone who might enjoy this please forward it along to them.

And I'm always interested in hearing your perspective. I think you just hit "reply" up there somewhere...