Friday, January 22, 2010

On the Road to Research

This month I’ve invited Sandra Jordan, who has co-authored eleven books with me, to be my guest blogger. I asked her to write something about how we do research for our books about art and artists. When I read her remarks, I realized yet again how much fun we’ve had working together over the last twenty years, how much I value her friendship and warm heart. Our next book, Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, comes out next fall. Her most recent picture book Mr. and Mrs. Portly (very funny!) came out last fall.

Sandra Jordan: Not every artist Jan and I want to write about is living. What then? We can read original material, soak ourselves in research, but when personal interviews aren’t possible (and sometimes even when they are) how do we go beyond our research give ourselves the sense of connection to the artist that we hope to translate to the reader?
One of our answers is road trips. Time spent in the library, in art archives is necessary. But for us, time spent on the road is just as necessary. Sometimes the travel is to view artworks. A trip to London to see a brilliantly curated Andy Warhol show that gave a new appreciation for the artist’s work. A journey up the river to Beacon Dia where a room full of Warhol’s Shadow paintings are displayed as he imagined when he made them. A walk around Storm King sculpture park in Mountainville, New York where no photograph can prepare you for the physical impact of spending an hour lying on the beams of Mother Peace by Mark di Suvero or clambering over Momo Toro by Isamu Noguchi. A quick trip to Washington, D.C. to look again at Lavender Mist, to get up close and squint at the way the color pooled to create a lavender effect (no purple paint), to trace in the air with our arms the sweeping arcs on the canvas and imagine how the artist felt.
But sometimes we are looking further than the artwork. A trip to Edward Hopper’s childhood home in Nyack was intended to see how close the Hudson River was to the house (the answer is he could see if from his bedroom window). The unexpected benefit was a super-helpful docent who arranged for us to hear a tape recorded interview with a long married couple both of whom went to grade school with young Edward. On the scratchy tape their high old voices piped “Oh, nobody liked him.” “Nobody!” They agreed that he was too tall and awkward to be popular and said his peers had called him “Grasshopper.” ? At Hopper House we also saw an old video of Hopper and his wife Josephine being interviewed, footage that we hadn't found anywhere else. It was apparent to us that even though he was born in Nyack into an old New York family and spent most of his adult life in New York City, Hopper clearly was a Yankee, with a Yankee's dry ironic humor, certainly not a WASP. And once that is perceived, his laconic silences and plain spoken manner take on a different resonance.
Another Hopper trip around Truro and Provincetown on Cape Cod where Edward Hopper and his wife Josephine spent their summers, yielded a dozen places that had been the subject of Hopper paintings. After a while everywhere we looked seemed like a painting. A climb up the very long set of stairs leading to the tiny historic Truro public library (then open only a few hours a week) led to meeting two native New England residents of the town who remembered Mr. Hopper very well. He was shy and polite they said with a very dry wit. They liked him, but when asked what books Mr. Hopper borrowed they exchanged glances and allowed as how he was interested in local history. Novels? Non fiction. Oh we couldn’t say, they said firmly. Obviously they could have said, but they wouldn’t. Mr. Hopper’s reading would stay Mr. Hopper’s business.
The trips are also to get a sense of place. There was no one we met in Sun Prairie and Madison Wisconsin who offered memories of the young Georgia O’Keeffe but standing in that very flat place took her remark about her first memories being of the big prairie sky of “Light, light all around,” from intellectual to visceral.
We went to Los Angeles to interview Frank O. Gehry and for two days toured various public and private Gehry designed buildings, including Mr. Gehry’s own iconic house. Then we spent many hours discussing our impressions of the materials, the spaces, and relationships in these buildings, trying to decide how to translate it into words for young readers.
Does sitting for an afternoon on the crumbling cement pad where Jackson Pollock set up a big sheet of glass so the young photographer Hans Namuth could photograph his painting process give us a better understanding of the artist? Not the surface. Only a few traces of white paint on the cement remain of that afternoon. But the view is the view that Pollock saw every day. The long stretch out over the marshes to the bay is a sight he loved. He walked the property for hours at a time. He collected the boulders piled in the sideyard of the house as surely as he collected the jazz records lined up in the living room of the house. Dare we say it is a tender, even poetic feeling we take away from this place. Yes we do dare say so. That brawling, conflicted, hard drinking artist connected to the landscape and we come back again and again, at different times and in different seasons, trying to look beyond the facts, to see what he saw.
We have piles of research, interviews, footnotes for everything, but how we choose what we say, how we select among the thousands of facts, quotes clamoring for our attention, that is often the result of our own rather subjective experience.

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