Tour of L’s brain, stop 2: stencils

I didn’t make it to New York City with my author, L. It wasn’t for lack of trying: The night before she was to leave, I slipped inside her coil-bound notebook, the one she almost always carries. But she was on this kick about traveling light, just a single carry-on suitcase and a purse. At the last minute, out went the coil-bound notebook in favour of a saddled-stitched slip of a thing about the size of a passport, three sizes too small for me to fit into.

trampingThat’s okay. I still rode along in the back of L’s head as usual, it’s just that I couldn’t get out, couldn’t rummage through the vintage stores in the Village for a new beret, or dip a toe in the fountain in Washington Square, or ask a street artist to draw me in caricature. But the trip was worthwhile in other ways. I took the opportunity to learn more about L. For the most part she’s a mystery to me, so I like to wander through the grey matter up here, sit down among the folds and try to puzzle out why she chooses one thing rather than another to plop into the novel she’s writing about me.

One rainy day in New York City, she visited the Guggenheim. Took the elevator to the top and spiraled her way down through the exhibits. Halfway down, a little jaded with the show installed along the five-floor corkscrew that is the main exhibition space, she stepped into a small side gallery. For her, this was like washing up on an island of calm. Kandinsky at the Bauhaus. L has always been drawn to this artist and his Bauhaus-period work. In fact, in a part of the novel that probably won’t survive the next revision, she put me, as an artist, through an afternoon of fierce envy related to his work. She had me trolling through his oeuvre on-line and berating myself: Why couldn’t I do that? Why, after the first few disarming successes, did my abstracts fail to breathe? (Every character needs her internal struggles.)

I wondered at the time why it was this artist who found his way into my story, rather than some other. Watching L at the Guggenheim, I began to understand. I suppose it’s no surprise that something a novelist is drawn to in real life will find its way into what she writes. In a certain form, of course — after all, if it doesn’t serve the story, it’ll get axed.

What did L do on her visit to Kandinsky Island? She sat down on a padded bench and stared for five full minutes at “Yellow Accompaniment” (1924), just letting it do what a piece of art like that will do. Then she got out her skinny notebook and her pen, and this is what she wrote:

At the centre is a small brown shape that looks like a pocked potato. This is the only ugly form in the painting, and it isn’t ugly in an ordinary way; no, it’s ugly-beautiful. The rest of the painting is energy-beautiful, colour-beautiful, geometry set–beautiful, simple shapes arranged with colour to powerful effect. Radiating lines, a rainbow, an egg-shape, a dot, a shining small circle or two. Once, when I was small, I asked my mother if she would draw with me. She was in a good mood that day, or at least an obliging one, because normally she wouldn’t have entertained such a request. She went to her cluttered desk and came back to the kitchen table with three tools: a red pen, a plastic template that allowed a person to trace around curves and angles and tsunami shapes, and a secretary’s stencil with the forms for a variety of  lovely symbols — a curly bracket { , an integral , an ampersand & , others   £ . While I sat scribbling with my crayons, she moved her templates here and there over her own sheet of paper and used her red pen to trace out an arrangement of shapes and symbols. And so she drew with me.

When I look at “Yellow Accompaniment,” its shapes and angles, its perfectly ruled, radiating lines, I think immediately of my mother sitting across from me, making shapes with her secretary’s implements. Over the years since she produced that drawing the incident has grown, for me, into something more than a mother’s attempt one afternoon to be a good sport. We do that with certain memories. We load them up, often unaware of what we’re up to until an experience or an encounter brings it to the fore. And so I have laced onto this memory a set of meanings to do with a woman’s brave but rare and, often as not, failed attempts at making more of her life than could ever be made.

That’s what L wrote. (There’s more, but that’s another story.) The people who write about art would have it that Kandinsky’s work during his Bauhaus period favoured planning and calculation over emotion. But my author L — sitting on the padded bench and experiencing a strobe effect as a procession of museum patrons passed between her and the work — seemed to experience plenty of emotion as she looked at “Yellow Accompaniment.” I once heard her say that a book is a collaboration between writer and reader. A painting is a collaboration too, between painter and viewer.

Watching L in the Guggenheim, a rare thing happened for me. A door opened, just a crack, to let me see why this guy’s art was important enough to L that it found its way into my story. I think L might have been peering through that doorway for the first time too.

Mentioned in this post: Kandinsky (the link is related to an earlier Kandinsky exhibition; scroll down to see “Yellow Accompaniment”); french curve; Guggenheim New York

And finally … here’s news that has nothing to do with this post:

My author recently won second place at the John V. Hicks Awards for her as-yet-unpublished manuscript “Unsupervised Swimming,” a book-length “anti-memoir.” She’s very happy about this, and in good company. Congratulations to Joanne Weber, who won first place, and Andréa Ledding, who won third place.

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2 Responses to Tour of L’s brain, stop 2: stencils

  1. Kim Aubrey says:

    I love the photo of Kate hiking over L’s grey matter, and L’s poignant response to the Kandinsky. This piece makes me long for NYC, to be walking down that spiral staircase, entering another consciousness.
    Congrats, L, on your win! An “anti-memoir” sounds fascinating!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Kim. Art museums will do that for a person.

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