“I saw myself stretched like brown earth in furrows, open to the sky, well planted, my life as a human being complete.”
Artist have different ways of arriving at their life’s purpose. Some, like Van Gogh, illuminate it with a slow-burning fire. Others awaken to it with the jolt of an epiphany in a single moment: Virginia Woolf found hers in the garden, James Baldwin in a puddle, Patti Smith at the park pond, and Pablo Neruda by reaching his hand through the fence.
For the pioneering sculptor Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004), the revelation arrived one November day in 1961, midway through her fortieth year, when she was visiting New York with a friend for a weekend of art.
In Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) — the trove of insight that gave us Truitt on compassion, the parallels between being an artist and being a parent, and the vital difference between doing art and being an artist — she recounts a formative epiphany she had at the Guggenheim Museum:
When we rounded into the lowest semi-circular gallery, I saw my first Barnett Newman, a universe of blue paint by which I was immediately ravished. My whole self lifted into it. “Enough” was my radiant feeling — for once in my life enough space, enough color. It seemed to me that I had never before been free. Even running in a field had not given me the same airy beautitude. I would not have believed it possible had I not seen it with my own eyes. Such openness wiped out with one swoop all my puny ideas. I staggered out into the street, intoxicated with freedom, lifted into a realm I had not dreamed could be caught into existence. I was completely taken by surprise, the more so as I had only earlier that day been thinking how I felt like a plowed field, my children all born, my life laid out; I saw myself stretched like brown earth in furrows, open to the sky, well planted, my life as a human being complete.
But rather than a passive completeness, the revelation seeded in Truitt a transcendent restlessness out of which she wrested the next chapter of her life as an artist:
I went home early … thinking I would sleep and absorb in self-forgetfulness the fullness of the day. Instead, I stayed up almost the whole night, sitting wakeful in the middle of my bed like a frog on a lily pad. Even three baths spaced through the night failed to still my mind, and at some time during these long hours I decided, hugging myself with determined delight, to make exactly what I wanted to make. The tip of balance from the physical to the conceptual in art had set me to thinking about my life in a whole new way. What did I know, I asked myself. What did I love? What was it that meant the very most to me inside my very own self? The fields and trees and fences and boards and lattices of my childhood rushed across my inner eye as if borne by a great, strong wind. I saw them all, detail and panorama, and my feeling for them welled up to sweep me into the knowledge that I could make them. I knew that that was exactly what I was going to do and how I was going to do it.
She left New York the following day to return home to Washington. First thing Monday morning, she bought the materials for the first of the thirty-seven sculptures she would make over the course of the year, which led to her first exhibition in New York the following year and became a cornerstone of her major retrospectives at the Whitney Museum and the Corcoran Gallery a decade later.
Daybook remains a remarkable read in its totality, in large part because Truitt was trained as a psychologist before she became an artist and is able to put her extraordinary powers of introspection in the service of unveiling universal insight into the creative life. Complement it with Truitt on what sustains the creative spirit, how parenting shapes our capacity for solitude, and the syncopation of grief and gladness, then revisit Teresita Fernández’s spectacular commencement address on what it really means to be an artist.
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