Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Vermeer and me

I was watching a program on Vermeer while quilting this afternoon and was intrigued with the commentary that several of his paintings are among the earliest depictions of people in concentration – not displaying overt emotion but clearly and seriously involved in their work. The commentators said this perception was particularly true when Vermeer showed people in artistic endeavors, such as the lacemaker or the painter.

I found these comments apropos because I was having quite the opposite artistic experience as they spoke. I was having one of those days in which practically every minute was punctuated by the strong desire to go get something to eat, or check my email, or see if the clothes in the dryer were dry yet.

Frequently I do have minutes, and hours, and full days in which I do achieve that blessed Vermeer state of engagement with my art. I have been known to sit for hours and put half-inch squares of fabric in place with tweezers and realize, with a start, that good heavens, it’s midnight and I’ve been here since I got up. (Those experiences occurred when my husband was away and did not remind me that it was dinnertime.)

During those zen states, or from now on I guess I will say Vermeer states, time stops ticking away; it is only me and the art, and the joy of developing the idea and then making it happen. Life is really good on those days.  I can easily get into Vermeer states with piecing, with calligraphy, with collage. I get them less frequently with quilting, which to me is the work where piecing is the play.

And quilting is what I am doing today, or at least what I was doing before I gave in to the strong desire to go write something in my blog. I’m quilting parallel lines with a walking foot on a large work, and I’m only on my first set of lines. When I get to the second set of lines, crossing the first to make a grid, it will go faster because I won’t have to worry about keeping the yet-unquilted parts of the layers in place. And with the second set of lines, all the pins will be gone so I won’t be stabbing myself.

But right now the quilt is fighting me. After each row of stitching I have to heave the bulk of the quilt back behind me, straighten the bulk of the roll a little bit, decide whether I’m going to hold the roll over my shoulder for the next pass or fold it out of the way to my left. I haven’t timed these steps, but I suspect that I spend more time moving and preparing the quilt than I actually do sewing it.

On days like this I wonder whether it’s a good idea to make art fulltime. But then I remember one of the pop-psychology truisms that really make me mad. It’s the glib remark, “Find work that you love and you'll never work again.”

I think this is simplistic and wrong. You can love, love, love your work and there will be many a day -- perhaps most days -- when you simply do have to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and WORK. Like today. If you go through your life just loving what you do, I wonder whether you will ever do excellent work. If you only want to love, not work, then what happens when the first thing you try doesn't come out very well?

Same with love, for that matter. You may love your husband (or mother or child or any significant other) as much as possible, and there are still going to be times when you have to really work at keeping the love going.

Perhaps what grates on me about this slogan is the implication that "work" is bad, and thus "never working again" is good. Au contraire, work is good. Without it nothing is ever accomplished. Vermeer knew that, and I do too, dammit, so I will be going back to the studio in a minute and keep working on that quilt. Well, more accurately, right after I find something to eat….


  1. How your words have touched me in this mood I found myself in today. I have been getting in touch with my inner Protestant lately and have developed a need for work for work's sake.
    The part about working on loving someone you love is particularly touching for me, right now. Maybe I'm not working hard enough on loving this person. And I ask myself if it will be worth the effort.

  2. Studs Terkel would say "work makes life sweet"

  3. To me, it's a decision. Work. Love. Living.

  4. I work for the joy that comes when you "get it right".

  5. I must quote my favorite phrase from a wedding I attended. The pastor said to the couple "I hope that you will always love each other. But I *know* that there will be days when you don't *like* each other." I think this applies equally well to making art.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  6. When you said that about going to check the dryer and so on, I think you must have seen what it is like in my studio some days...

    But it is much better now that I have been getting audio books from the library. I get so enthralled with the book, before I know it, the hands get on with doing the complicated thing, (and I have not added to my work load by washing every stitch of clothing in the only stays in the basket to be folded and ironed if I do that!)

    but I do like the Vermeer days better. When I do have to go off to the loo, I stop in the kitchen and put some dinner in the oven on the automatic timer so that I can work right up to when I am meant to have some food on the table. you can even do a fairly impressive dinner that way!
    Sandy in the UK

  7. Kathy... your blog is beautiful. I love your equating art with relationships. That rings true. Now that my studio isn't at home, I don't have the same distractions, but then I don't feel comfortable working until midnight, either.