Category Archives: Why I make art

Reading ““Crow Mountain”” by Can Xue

Crow Mountain.” Translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. Asymptote, July 2015.


When you read Can Xue’’s story ““Crow Mountain,”” you’’re reading about a young girl who wishes to investigate a place. It’’s called Crow Mountain, but it’’s really a derelict building. Still, it holds some allure for her. Why is it called Crow Mountain when it’’s really something else? When her parents first show her the building, it’’s as if they are introducing her to the enigma, but they pull her away, perhaps because they know she is not ready for the experience.

Eventually, the girl, named Juhua, meets an older friend, Qinglian, who knows about Crow Mountain and offers to take her there. Qinglian tells Juhua that her uncle is actually the gatekeeper at Crow Mountain, so she has an in. Juhua admires her friend very much. Qinglian is older, more sophisticated, and quite beautiful. Beside her, Juhua feels very plain. There’’s also the matter of Qinglian’’s art form—–the embroidery that she practices in secret with her widowed mother. One day Juhua catches a glimpse of something that takes her breath away–—a double-sided embroidery with a waterfall on one side and the sea on the other. Qinglian quickly hides the piece in its basket, saying that it is not for Juhua’’s eyes.

Nevertheless, Qinglian makes good on her offer to take Juhua to Crow Mountain. They travel to the old building on a city bus. When they knock for the uncle, no one answers. The door is ajar, and Qinglian says that it is all right to go in. That’’s when all hell breaks loose. Nothing on Crow Mountain is as it seems. For Juhua, it’’s a complete loss of reference points. However, Qinglian seems to be having a completely different experience. She’’s comfortable on Crow Mountain and climbs confidently up a path. Juhua is terrified and yet intrigued by floors that aren’’t really floors; by a beam of light that, when pierced by a hand, causes a cawing of unseen crows; by small birds that fall in the beam of light; by a lizard-like thing that can float in the air, by an uncle who is a giant with legs as large as columns. She loses Qinglian, feels an electrical shock through her body, gets bitten by the lizard, and is even unconscious for a brief period of time.

At the end of the story, there is a return to the ordinary world. The uncle really is a gatekeeper with a small room where he sleeps beneath a mosquito net and reads ancient books at a table. Qinglian talks a little bit about her experience on Crow Mountain. She has picked and eaten cherries. She has, perhaps, been to the summit, whereas Juhua wandered around in darkness and saw something completely different. They return home by bus–—a return to ordinary life.

Despite her fear, Juhua feels that she now shares a profound secret with Quinglian, that something extraordinary actually happened to her, and that she is eager to explore more new things in spite of the danger. She also decides not to tell her parents about the outing. It’’s as if she fears that they would disapprove and forbid her ever going again. Qinglian warns her not to talk about it nor ask too many questions about what she saw there.

This story, like many of Can Xue’s stories, is about a character who takes off to investigate something intriguing or interesting, and then finds herself in a place where the usual rules of human life don’’t hold. There’’s a skewed strangeness in these situations. Yet there’’s also an upward striving toward another kind of knowledge. During these interludes when the individual ceases to engage in herd behavior, another order of experience always intervenes. The ordinary world falls away, and the characters catch a glimpse of their spiritual selves, the selves that haven’’t necessarily been conditioned by the use and wear of everyday life.

For me, the story is about the journey of the artist. In order to create, the artist must supersede both training and a priori ideas. She must purposely place herself into a situation in which the world is not solid, into a world that is as yet undefined and unmade. “Crow Mountain” is about human capacity, not so much about conscious imagination, but about the human capacity to receive, to make contact with that unmade place, and then to experience there things that are fresh, perhaps pleasant, perhaps frightening, maybe even oddly skewed. Certainly the authentic experience of Crow Mountain turns out to be unique–—nothing anyone else could have actually told or predicted ahead of time.

One characteristic of Juhua is that, unlike Qinglian, who is more adept and perhaps the true artist, Juhua is concerned about status. She compares herself to Qinglian. She tries to judge things. She doesn’’t understand why Qinglian doesn’’t show off her beautiful embroidery or brag about her uncle who is really a giant. She thinks these things would be worth telling everyone about, and the result would be that others would be jealous of her just as she is jealous of Qinglian. Yet in the end, she decides to keep her own secret and she doesn’’t tell anyone that she has gone to Crow Mountain. It feels too personal and almost sacred. She has gained an interior space that didn’’t exist before.

People would have a hard time trusting Qinglian. She just is this thing. She has the capability of guiding Juhua to Crow Mountain, but once there, Qinglian has no control over what Juhua experiences. We tend to want our literature grounded in the “real” world–—in a world that most people can understand. Stories have trajectories. There are rules to follow about plot and characterization. We want the offering of a scenario and a resolution that satisfies our need for order. We want a clear understanding of motive and a solid realization of the place where the events are occurring. This is not what Can Xue offers. Instead, the real story is hidden and can seem incomprehensible. But it is not completely hidden.

At the end, we know that while Juhua returns to the safety of her parents’ home, she still has a hunger for Crow Mountain and is probably already determined to return with or without Qinglian. Once the bird has left its cage, it’’s had a dizzying taste of freedom, and so Juhua i’s not likely to return to her old ways of dealing with the world.

In fact, all the characters in the story could be read as different aspects of a single character. After a striving upwards that seems to disorient our perceptions of every-day reality, there’’s a kind of balance that asserts itself in the end. Each division of the self is necessary–—the guide, the pilgrim, the uncle, the mother, the father. Each has a role to play in the life of a fully alive and creative human being. It’’s a lot to think about–—and that may be the point. Crow Mountain is not about our usual ways of thinking at all. To enter Crow Mountain is to open our selves to the unknown.

Qinglian guides people to Crow Mountain. She does not control what they experience there. She can’’t put limits on it or define it. They experience something that they might find pleasant or unpleasant—–something that is so personal that they probably cannot put it into words. In some sense, Qinglian is a bit of a bully. She refuses to answer any questions about Crow Mountain. She takes Juhua there but she doesn’’t even try to help Juhua make sense of her experience at Crow Mountain. In fact, she tells her not to talk about it. It is something that just needs to be lived.

Two Childhood Drawings

Winter Scene is shown, a childhood drawing by Jeri Griffith to illustrate her blog.

Winter Scene, childhood drawing by Jeri Griffith

The little shed where the skaters sit to lace up their skates seems precariously balanced on the edge of the pond, as if I couldn’t quite figure out how to orient it accurately. That is probably because, while the skating rink is seen head-on, the hill is depicted as if the viewer is looking down on it. In naïve art and in children’s art, disparate points of view aren’t necessarily contradictory. As far as I was concerned at the age of five, everything was in its place and exactly where it should be.

This drawing of child’s play in winter offers a tremendous amount of information. I probably began with the oval for the skating rink and moved on, adding elements as I thought of them. All of these activities would have been extremely familiar to me at that age. I skated, went sledding, and used the fiberglass “flying saucers” that appear in the drawing as well. I was making decisions about what was important, putting in elements as I went along, and happily covering the whole scene with snowflakes.

Childhood drawing by Jeri Griffith of an imaginary scene inside a museum

In the Museum, by Jeri Griffith

In the hallway picture, I was trying to demonstrate an understanding of the laws of perspective. In it, lines converge and things get smaller as they recede into the distance. Both drawings are filled with details that I considered important to include. I suspect that that museum hallway was an imaginary scene and not a real place. Even so, I’ve shown a water fountain, an EXIT sign, and artifacts in the display cases. As a child, I walked plowed fields with my father looking for flint arrowheads and pieces of broken pottery that tended to surface in the spring. I had a fascination with prehistoric life that continues today.

The child’s winter scene is lively and expressive, and depicts a spacious world of freedom and play. The empty hallway has a more ominous, empty feeling. The trajectory in the hallway is inescapable. I can either turn off to the left or walk toward that pair of closed gray doors. The choices have become much more limited. I could say that my life had become more institutionalized, but I’m not sure that’s the case.

Both drawings represent a legitimate approach to some understanding of the world and of pictorial space and possibly of the self. In the winter scene, there is freedom. The hallway represents constriction, but also the potential to be part of some larger world. It’s about the effort to articulate and to communicate accurately. Always in my work, I have swung between these two poles—that of infinite freedom of expression and then the hard task of saying what is really meant, what is really there. The hallway drawing represents a path of learning and words. The winter scene is about intuition and movement without being fettered. I believe a great artist needs both of these qualities.

I only have to look at a winter scene by the great Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel to find a kindred spirit here. In Hunters in the Snow or Return of the Hunters (1565), we have what seems to be an utterly realistic painting, but I’m sure that if I began a serious study of the work by drawing it, I would discover many disconnects. The pictorial space is credible, but if I deconstructed it, I would find that it doesn’t really make sense and that this could not possibly be a “realistic” depiction of a single scene. Just as I did in my much more primitive winter scene, Bruegel has included many details and vignettes to make the picture interesting.  And in doing so, he’s united the two points of view. He’s combined an appetite for life and the desire to show everything that is important with some semblance of a natural perspective that makes the viewer believe in his painting.


“Seated Man” at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

“Seated Man,” andesite, northwest Syria or southeastern Turkey, Neo-Hittite or Aramaean, mid-9th–8th centuries BC

“Seated Man,” andesite, northwest Syria or southeastern Turkey, Neo-Hittite or Aramaean, mid-9th–8th centuries BC

“Seated Man”–This man is a cube. He emerges from a block of stone in his display case at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He is pure shape. He has a pure face with wide-open eyes. He radiates the calm of the stone, the sense of presence and place of something that cannot be easily defaced or destroyed. His eyes might have been more unnerving if they were painted with dark, bright pupils and whites. Maybe, originally, they were painted. Maybe he was actually bright red with a gaze of turquoise, but here, that is all calmed by the texture of the stone and by its uniform color.

I like the fact that the human body is emerging from this cube looking like a piece of furniture, the lap perhaps a place for the placement of offerings or gifts. This man is pure compression. He is what art is about—the confinement or containment of the spirit in a physical material, in this case andesite, a very hard stone related to granite. It must have been a difficult job to carve him, to eke him out, to release him from the geology of his rock.

His disproportionately large head greets me, bringing some message from another time. It’s pure poetry. I don’t have to learn about it to understand it. I’m interested in its archaeology, but I’m also interested in what it communicates: directness, a solid, stolid sense that his culture was forever.

And as I walk through my suburban neighborhood at dusk, I realize that most people believe this. They think that our culture is forever. They believe that people will always be driving around in cars, mowing their lawns, and peering out their windows at birdfeeders that attract chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice. My man tells me otherwise. This world will not last. It will change. My man admonishes me. But he also speaks of some great strength within human beings—the power to make art and ritual objects, the power to communicate through image and symbol. His culture has reached into mine. He’s in a museum, for God’s sake, halfway around the world from where he was unearthed. He got himself cleaned up and put into this glass case, and he makes me laugh. When I am gone, he’ll still be here. There’s great humor in that and also some insight.

“Horseman and Dog” at Boston’s MFA


Horseman and Dog

“Horseman and Dog,” terracotta, Italy (Sicily), Late archaic period (500 BC), The Museum of Fine Arts

Almost every time I visit Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, I have a look at this small sculpture. It’s a favorite, and I often take guests to see the piece in the Greek galleries. The terracotta figurine is a funerary object made for a grave. Presumably, the young boy depicted with his horse and dog has already passed into another world. I go to this sculpture because it so captures some in-between place—a moment balanced between life and death—somehow found and preserved. It finds that exact place—an exuberant place—and it stays there telling me the truth: This is what life is. This is also about death.

My late thirties were characterized by loss. Three young people from my milieu died suddenly—two through unrelated murders and the other because of a heart arrhythmia that took him as a young man. It was a time of grief and also of rebellion against what had occurred. My feelings went beyond sadness or questioning. I felt rage. It seemed unfair. These things were not supposed to happen at all, and, certainly, they were not supposed to happen to anyone who was close to me!

Gradually, the anger and the sadness gave way and something else replaced it—the beginning of a new kind of vision—a new world seen through the tears of loss—a kind of hyper-vision infused with light. I saw in a way that could make a glass of water look like the loveliest thing in the world. I could look through a paned window at the branches of a tree and weep.

I’m not sure scholars would agree with me, but I identify the expression on the boy’s face as having something to do with the “archaic smile.” It is found on other Greek sculptures from this period, especially on the faces of highly stylized statues of young boys called kouroi. The meaning of the smile is both debatable and debated by those who speculate about cultural expression. I’m okay with that. For me, the archaic smile always represents the ultimate in serenity, a kind of confidence in both life and death. In the case of my horseman and his dog, the memory is about three beings who were once very alive and then were taken. That’s enough to give the piece its sad and joyous meaning.

Animal Imagery and Color—The Work of Franz Marc

“Your paintings remind me of the work of Franz Marc.” I received this comment (and, I think, compliment) some months ago from a young visitor to my website. It immediately reminded me of a 1912 painting of Marc’s entitled Deer in a Monastery Garden—a favorite of mine. I think of this work as having strong Cubist influence, but Marc’s is not the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, not the Cubism of fractured faces and figures, and certainly not the Cubism of cafés where people drank coffee and cognac and spread newspapers out on tabletops.

Marc’s Cubist tendencies are applied to nature, in this case to the monastery’s garden where a young deer hides among bits of light cracking through the leaf canopy. The fawn is nearly invisible, absorbed into the texture and colors of the environment. Though influenced by the genre (who wasn’t in the early twentieth century), Marc wasn’t really a Cubist painter. He believed deeply in the spirituality of a natural rather than a human-made world. He was part of a deeply felt movement of German Expressionism, something of a Romantic, and a bold colorist.

Marc had no trouble painting horses blue or conceiving of a bright yellow cow. In fact, the deer in the monastery painting is actually rendered in yellow, ochre, and green, as if the green of the light is being picked up by its dappled coat and somehow that energy is being stored there.

When I went back to explore reproductions of Marc’s paintings in a book I own, I recalled that his images of animals always moved me. I grew up in nature, observing wild animals. I have always felt a deep connection with animals. My earliest childhood drawings were often of birds, fish, and small mammals. People seemed complicated to me. Animals were always deeper and more interesting, certainly more mysterious. My father was a game warden, and we sometimes rehabilitated injured animals. We once cared for a fawn for several months. His back leg had been grazed, pierced by an arrow. He was very small, but I helped suckle him with a baby bottle filled with warm, watered-down cow’s milk. We kept him in our garage inside a fence made from bales of straw. Soon he could leap the fence. He survived and was later released on a game farm.

Those memories of a specific animal yield for me a particularly emotional connection to Deer in a Monastery Garden. I recall the soft liquid eyes of a small deer I passed many hours with. Marc indicates the eye of his fawn with a soft, dark mark, almost smeared but enough to indicate that this was a living being with its own vision.

Marc didn’t merely study animals. He related them to himself and to the human world. For him, they represented a spiritual sense of his world and a way toward what was best within himself. He wrote: “People with their lack of piety, especially men, never touched my true feelings. But animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that is good in me.”*

Under the influence of formal art training, I almost completely abandoned any iconography that referred to animals. Still, I’ve returned to drawing animals, birds, and fish throughout my life. It might be time to revisit that connection.

*Mark Rosenthal, Franz Marc, New York: Prestel Publishing, 2004,13

Image of  Marc’s Grazing Horses IV (The Red Horses), Harvard Art Museums

On Reading Black Elk Speaks and Seeing Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky

For those who don’t know, Black Elk Speaks was written in 1932 by the poet John Neihardt, based on his translated conversations with Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota medicine man. Black Elk, who died in 1950, was a witness not only to the Battle at Wounded Knee but also to the end of the tragic transition, begun decades before, of his people from their traditional life to the circumscribed life of the reservation and cultural genocide.

I read this book after seeing Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, a magnificent exhibition at the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. The show was an impressive and beautiful presentation, conceived as an attempt to illuminate and give us entrance to a culture that thrived on the Great Plains. The exhibition was filled with carefully documented articles of decorated clothing as well as other personal and ritual objects that brought to life a way of being, a spiritual connection to the land, and a code of values.

Going through room after room, I knew this was a different way of seeing the world. Where in my culture does art deliver this level of meaning? How is our art integrated into the needs of people for recording history as well as for expressing a vision that impacts both the individual and the community? Do we surround ourselves with beautiful things that were made by us or for us as an expression of personality or relationship? And then do we take care of these things for a lifetime or even over many generations?

For Black Elk and his people, art was not something separate visited in a museum. It was intrinsic. Songs were ways of knowledge. Images offered a connection between the inner world of spirit and the exigencies of physical reality. As with most indigenous cultures, it is nearly impossible for us to enter into the state of mind in which these objects were created and used. That’s our loss. We have no way of melding reality, dreams, hopes, and history, and then somehow realizing our limited selves in terms of all these.

We might appreciate and appropriate the aesthetic qualities of so many things displayed here. A marvelous wooden horse is the signature piece. Wonderful imagery is painted on deerskin and buffalo robes that have survived, ostensibly, because someone valued them. But we do not enter so deeply into our lives that we might “see” what it would mean to be completely integrated into both an environment and a community as individuals.

Okay, I’m sure that we wouldn’t want to go back to that time with its challenges and privations. After all, we’re part of the culture that overcame the Plains people. We have everything that is meant to protect us from knowing some of the things they knew and from the many discomforts they must have suffered living closer to the land and the weather, but at what loss? I myself would not successfully return to that time nor would I wish to live in such a prescribed way as a member of a particular tribe. I am happy to benefit from a multicultural perspective and set of possibilities.

But there was something enlightened about this approach to the world that commands my respect. We don’t fast for days, sing for the spirits to come, or cry for a vision. But the consequence is that maybe as artists and as individuals, we don’t dig deep enough. We think life should be easy. We’re moving very quickly through both time and space. We don’t believe that we have the hours required to carve a beautiful object out of stone or wood without power tools. The sheer speed at which we live our lives can seem good, but it simply may not allow for the meditative, slow work that might lead us in a truly promising direction.

Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, opening March 2, 2015.

Read Sebastian Smee’s insightful review of the show, Plains Indians Saga Finds Artistic Expression at the Met, published March 28, 2015, in the The Boston Globe.

Winter Inspiration

I dream often of my maternal grandmother’s house. This has been going on for years. Often I’m trying to return there. Sometimes I’m fixing it up or planning to buy back the place. The house itself is long gone, probably torn down years ago. But in my dreams, it remains alive—a place that changes its guise often but always with a few features of the original place.

It was, to say the least, an unassuming house. My grandparents were poor. They lived from the garden and by my grandfather’s job as a worker at the local paper mill in a small town fifty miles south of Lake Superior. The northern winters were extremely cold. The house had no central heat nor even a fireplace or woodstove, only an oil-burning stove in the dining room between the kitchen and the small living room. Every morning, my grandfather would get up to light the stove. For me, in the dream world, that small flame at the center of the poor house has become symbolic.

Just two nights ago, the dream returned. I was working on fixing up the place because I planned to spend the winter there. I felt the challenge of surviving the cold. I felt very strongly that this was the only way to nurture my creativity. I would go there. Something would happen. I would paint. I would make images. But it would be more than this. The vision would come to me. It would be a form of fasting and waiting for that.

It may be true that the old oil burner is the inner source of my artistic fire—something you light every day, something you depend on but have to work at, nurture, and feed. There is something in my background, in my psyche, in my body, that is about poverty and then about that process—making things out of almost nothing, living close to the bone with whatever is available. I practice this frugality in my kitchen. I never throw anything away, as there is always the possibility for morphing it into something else, something better, something new.

I believe in making do with essentials and in crying for a vision in an environment that, for all its bleakness, is still lit by an inner fire. While some artists may seek out sunny climes, I’m a winter person. I need that sense of darkness, of silence, of whiteness. It’s the beginning for me. It’s the place where I make drawings in black and white. Winter also provides me with the blank canvas that literally imbues itself with the colors of my heart and my soul. Spring and sun always follow. It’s a rhythm that I need and crave.

Larry Rivers and the Fluid Nature of Seeing

Larry Rivers, “Self Figure” (1953)

Fractured energy plays across the surface of this work in oil on canvas. Ostensibly, it’s a painting of a single figure moving through space. To my mind, what’s represented here is not a person but an event. The character is insubstantial. The “self” depicted is not fixed in time. The face echoes itself as if yesterday has faded and a new face is now slowly emerging. The man’s moment is mutable. Small squalls everywhere make the canvas a study in transformation.

In “Self Figure” it’s impossible to distinguish between figure and the background. Both are painted in exactly the same manner. I view this painting as though it were the flickering screen of an old movie after the film has deteriorated. A detail emerges here or there—a carefully rendered hand or facial detail. These come forward only to melt back into the ground of the image.

For his paintings, Rivers often chose deeply personal subject matter. He made portraits of his sons, his mother-in-law, and his many friends active in the arts. He also chose historical moments and used his brand of pastiche and collage to comment on them and to suggest something new about our understanding of these events and the ways that they had previously been shown in iconic paintings.

Rivers’ “historical” painting,  “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” certainly contrasts with Thomas Sully’s depiction of this crucial event that marked a turning point in the Revolutionary War (“The Passage of the Delaware”). Sully’s work, painted in 1819, depicts General Washington elegantly and heroically posing on a white horse against the impending night. He is clearly the man of the hour. In Rivers’ work areas of thick paint give way to sketched-in places where we almost seem to lose the image all together. This “solid” piece of history has been made into a single fleeting and fairly insubstantial moment, a thing with frayed edges, a place where people merge with the landscape and then emerge once again.

Rivers visual language masterfully represents uncertainty, the fluid nature of our seeing and beyond this, and at a deeper level, the uncertainty of our knowledge. The historical issues in Rivers’ paintings—the very definitions of cause and effect—are lost in such atmospheric conditions that suggest a multi-dimensional geography of the mind—perhaps of the painter’s mind or maybe a collective mind in which we rewrite history on a moment by moment basis both remembering and forgetting.

Always Rivers’ paintings tell me not to believe too much in what I think I know. Each of them resembles a piece of music. Once heard, it disappears.