The Power of Objects: Still Life

I recently came across a book called Still Life with Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty. (Beacon Press, Boston, 2001) which speaks directly to the power of objects as interpreted by artists in still life painting.  In it, the author says,” To think through things, that is the still life painter’s work–and the poet’s.  Both sorts of artists require a tangible vocabulary, a worldly lexicon.  A language of ideas is, in itself, a phantom language, lacking in the substance of worldly things, those containers of feelings and experience, memory and time.  We are instructed by the objects that come to speak with us, those material presences.  Why should we have been born knowing how to love the world?  We require, again and again, these demonstrations.” (pp. 9, 10)

Her Good Coat, charcoal and pastel on paper, 2010

Her Good Coat, charcoal and pastel on paper, 2010

I have exhibited two versions of this coat–one drawn in pastel and another interpretation in collograph, a type of print.  Here is the pastel drawing, “Her Good Coat” which recently received the Juror’s Prize in Art 2011, the annual juried exhibition at the Harlow Gallery in Hallowell, Maine.

When asked to explain why I am drawn to objects such as this coat, sometimes I find that words escape me.  The objects I choose have a poetic resonance based on their materiality, form, and history in the world.  My study of these objects is a meditation of sorts.  My approach to graphic interpretation is partly sensory and partly poetic–I am fascinated by the tactile qualities of the objects I study but I am willing to go beyond surface impressions to a more layered and complex interpretation.  I am interested, too, in the memories that surface when viewers encounter these still life images.

purse of memories

purse of memories

Another surprise gem I found is a passage where the author reflects on the childhood images he retains of his grandparents.  Describing his grandmother, Mr. Doty recalls,

“Her ensemble is completed by the pocketbook; the word seems as capacious and black as the thing it represents, which is square, shiny, carried by a double strap, and closed with an irresistible pair of prongs that  must be snapped one over the other, so that the pocketbook opens and closes with a satisfying click; slight reverberation of metal, the nice feel of fingers firm against patent leather.” (p.11)

Mr. Doty goes on to describe the things carried inside the pocketbook, everything from a plastic rain bonnet of see-through vinyl that folds up to a little change purse, and finally to the little red, pinwheeled peppermints he was so fond of as a boy. (p.12)  He could easily have been describing the little black purse I found at the Goodwill store that has been my inspiration for a series of still life “Purse” images.

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon is an eloquent meditation on the art of the still life. I thank Mr. Doty for sharing his passion for still life with us in this beautifully written book.  In it, he speaks to my love of the object as a container of memory which is perhaps the primary reason I include still life in my repertoire.

 

 

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