V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics





Heart and mind, personal and universal, shape and line,
animate and inanimate, still life and active life
— the dualisms seem to multiply and increasingly suggest
themselves as I sit here and write this essay.

Fare is a watercolor and ink drawing that I did back in 1999.  It is one of my favorites from the late 90s, a period when I worked on heavy watercolor paper exclusively, painting in all of the color areas first (using as a guide light pencil lines that established the composition) and then filling in details and textures with lines from a fine-tipped pen that I dip in a bottle of black ink.  The central subject is a fanciful figure built from wood scraps and other components, each of which has some value to me that I may describe as metaphorical, except that often the precise nature of the metaphorical associations is unknown to me or lies in a realm where words seem inadequate or unsuited to the task of clear explanation.  In other words, my interest in the various elements of my constructed wooden figures resides firmly in areas that are visual and intuitive.
     Consequently, I cannot honestly say that these elements are chosen necessarily for narrative or communicative purposes, although I would describe my art as having a narrative basis (particularly my more recent pictures which seem to be less ambiguous, more focused in their stories or messages than ever before).  I mention this idea of elements being chosen intuitively and forming a visual story that could be analyzed or interpreted symbolically mainly to point out that in creating this work (and my example is, I feel, useful to consider in viewing many works of modern and contemporary art by artists everywhere), I had an overall sense of what I wanted to offer as a scene or situation; an understanding (for me and for viewers) would come later as the possible meanings or interpretations of the specific parts were woven together into some sensible explanation.  I suppose my investigation of my subconscious to discover images that feel meaningful, that have some essential tie to my identity despite my inability at the time to articulate that tie or the images’ precise relationship to my body of life experiences, relates well to the notion of the personal being a fruitful area to examine for an understanding of the universal.  By putting my chosen elements together in a composition that appeals to me and not doing a significant amount of conceptual editing, I can view the work much later and comprehend some statement I made about my life or life in general that must have arisen from some urgency or necessity, the nature of which seems to have been unavailable to me at the time due to its basis in an area of the mind that seems to communicate in a fashion similar to some sort of open-ended code. 
     What I would like to do in this essay is decipher the code, interpret the image, in such a way that shares my motivations and interests and offers a possible explanation or statement of meaning, although one must keep in mind that my interpretation represents merely one viewpoint.  Others are welcomed and encouraged, since ultimately what I have to say about the picture, what the picture means to me, is in the picture itself.  Words will always pale by comparison, since they try to impose order on order, and since the description of the thing (no matter how poetic or to the point) is never a substitute for the thing itself.  Analysis can enhance, but please allow yourself to enter Fare’s world and let it proclaim its own sense to your imagination.
     The wooden man relates to the way I feel about my body, or the way I feel my body in general.  Wood is a stiff and strong organic material that is full of character, that preserves and displays its history in its structure and appearance.  It is simultaneously alive and dead.  It is a raw material for many purposes and uses, but this raw material has its own logic, its own complexity, that to me elevates it beyond any status of the merely utilitarian; the fact that wood can be recalcitrant, due perhaps to the many experiences of its life or even essential nature, indicates that while it can be brought into the service of various tasks or purposes, it nevertheless asserts its identity at most opportunities.  It struggles, it charms with its textures both tactile and visual, it stands firm while breathing, twisting, moving.  I feel like the wooden man because in my middle age I wear my scars, I heavily step forward, I am aware of the weight of my limbs, the weight of my load, the effort with which I must move myself.  As much as I have an identity, a heart that motivates me and keeps me going, I am an organism built of parts and an animated body that physically reflects my time and experiences on earth.  Wood is stuff the way flesh and bones are stuff.  The beauty, the truth, that can be gained from truly seeing a tree is the same as that which can be gained from seeing a plank or a table — or, I might add, a face or a body.  See past the graceful design, the ornament, the surface detail, and you will see the dried material, the alterations (sometimes forceful) that speak quietly of pain, the gradual decomposition, the nobility of endurance in the face of forces that are responsible for both nourishment and decay.
     To navigate life, one must maintain at all times a sense of stability, and the horizontal wooden rods or poles on the figure in Fare are such stabilizers, external manifestations of internal agents.  Despite one’s best attempts to stay balanced and even, life events and occurrences of a problematic nature somehow find their way into one’s affairs and even lodge themselves there so that complete equilibrium is impossible; thus, the crates on the left stabilizers of the figure threaten to weigh down the wooden man on one side, possibly upsetting the even state he desires and pursues.  While this struggle for balance takes place, the masts and sails on his back serve as a reminder of the transcendent power of the imagination to transport, to enable him to navigate those earth-bound scenarios that introduce challenges at every opportunity.  The fact that sails are frequently made of canvas might introduce art and art-making into an interpretation; in other words, the canvas (as an arena for creativity) may be an option, a handy resource, to consider and keep in one’s mind in dealing with life.  The man’s lack of arms may demonstrate his status as an active participant and, simultaneously, something of a victim.  As much as he has the power or ability to exist and grow, he is to some degree unable to affect or interact with his surroundings.  He is strong and substantial but cannot touch, cannot relate.  That tension or desperation that results is frustrating, but also perhaps poignant.
     The man’s torso is large, massive, and atop this torso, in addition to the aforementioned masts and sails, is a plant and small nub-like form.  The plant introduces growth and life to the wooden figure, representing a kind of life gauge that indicates visually the idea that energy still courses through this figure, still animates this creaking body of wood.  The nub is the man’s head, very tiny in contrast to the figure’s bulky trunk.  Within the trunk is most likely a heart, a powerful energy source that produces compassion and sensitivity, that causes the figure to yearn and aspire, to continue onward even though all earthly indicators would point to the futility of the endeavor.  I see the tiny head as a manifestation of the notion of intelligence being secondary, nearly insignificant, when compared to the heart and the worth of having a large capacity for feeling and seeing.  The mind, despite its status as a processor of the empirical and the reasonable or logical, seems to me to be somehow secondary to a heart or body awareness that connects one to those anonymous currents that, in their invisibility, seem to connect people to all other entities, human or otherwise.
     I realize, by the way, that my suggestion of prioritizing the heart over the mind seems to contradict my earlier statements regarding balance as a desirable state or quality for living.  I am very much in favor of maintaining a balance in my life, but it seems to me that so often the intellect is favored over those qualities based in the metaphorical concept that is the heart (as opposed to the actual physical organ which is more utilitarian in its function as a central pump).  My visual strategy of decreasing the head size and increasing the torso size is a way of urging myself and viewers to be even more attentive to cultivating and nourishing this body-based sense of intuitive connectedness.
     Heart and mind, personal and universal, shape and line, animate and inanimate, still life and active life — the dualisms seem to multiply and increasingly suggest themselves as I sit here and write this essay.  Notice the sun and moon, for example, subjects that are dear to me and that were chosen to express the two poles, the two extremes of my disposition.  While the human qualities commonly associated with each are well-known and need not be elaborated on here, let me just mention how aware I have been during the last ten years or so of the comfort I derive from both these celestial forms, not only from symbolic considerations but also from their existence as physical entities having fascinating relationships (both readily apparent and largely unnoticed or unacknowledged) to this planet.  On the ground within the picture, the land meets the sea at a cliff edge, introducing another dualism and showing the figure poised at the meeting point of the two.  The wooden man is stable enough on the ground, but he seems to head toward the oblivion suggested at the right edge of the paper, almost as if one step would plunge him into a realm of no safety, of the unknown.  The idea of unknown lands, unknown areas, ties in with my interest in old woodcut maps where whole areas are designated as unexplored or belonging to monsters or savages.  I hope that my use of line and subtle color reminds viewers of these works of early graphic art that speak to my soul every time I see them, as if these products were able to reach across the centuries to let me know who I am and how I see.
     One final dualism in the picture that I notice revolves around the notions of the stability of home and the instability of being out in the world.  The house on the left (connected to other homes and the rest of civilization by the telephone or utility pole and its accompanying wires) is anchored securely in its foundation, while the figure seems to move away from it toward the uncertainty of the cliff discussed above.  The tension I feel in seeing the security of home juxtaposed with the lack of security that arises from travel toward an unspecified goal or destination makes me aware of my title and my reasons for choosing it.  To me, the word “fare” relates to the price of a voyage.  In addition, it makes me think of my state of being in choosing to embark (in other words, how I fare in my journey).  From there, my mind moves to the homonym “fair” and its multiple associations, each of which seems applicable and sensible as I continue to delight in the word and its relationships to my drawing.  The title, then, is a word I find myself savoring and contemplating, attempting to reconcile with a visual work that is for me just as multi-faceted.  The quest for meaning is a process, and while meaning is never established finally or concretely, the quest itself becomes the meaning in a way.
     Everything I have written above is as true as I can phrase it.  My drawing and my essay represent my most sincere efforts to understand myself and my creations, as well as share that understanding with others.  Cross my heart.

© by Gregg Hertzlieb


Contributor's note
Next page
Table of contents
VPR home page

[Best read with latest browser versions, font preferences set at 12 pt. Times New Roman]