Ceci N’est Pas Une Essai


By Joshua Bodwell

“Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.” Rene Magritte.

I suppose it could be said that I was engaged in artistic pursuits before I had even tasted the first sweet breath of life—when my mother was only a few months pregnant with me, she posed nude for the painter DeWitt Hardy. I have been rapt by the power and possibilities of art ever since.

Perhaps I was more fascinated with crayons and Elmer’s Glue than the average five-year-old, but more than anything, my childhood was steeped in artwork and artists.

My neighbors—the kids with whom I had crabapple fights and built treehouses—were the great-grandchildren of Henry Strater, founder of the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, classmate of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and friend of Ernest Hemingway. I saw bits of Strater’s rugged art around their house and couldn’t believe someone in their family had made it.

In elementary school, my best friend Tom was the son of the highly regarded watercolor painter and muralist John Gable. None of my friends fathers worked at home back then, but John did, holed up in his third-floor studio for much of the day. It struck me as wonderfully strange, and it also impressed and excited me. Tom and I would creep up the creaky stairs to spy on his dad at work. There, on ancient-looking easels, I saw paintings that portrayed the town around me. And in that moment, the landscape of my youth was magically elevated to the status of art.

I believe that, even then, knowing both John and the Straters instilled within me the belief that making a living creating art is not only possible but honorable. The die was cast.

By the end of elementary school and continuing through middle school, I was already torn between the writing of prose and the making of art. For years, I split my time between the two. In high school, a young art teacher named Alex Downs opened my eyes to the works of contemporary masters—such as Jasper Johns, Barbara Krueger, and Mark Rothko—and to the art of everyday life. In Alex’s classroom, I often recruited friends to assist me in seemingly endless silkscreen-printing sessions. I created hundreds of impressions of a single image, and then assembled them into large works that I imagined fell somewhere between Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup Cans and Gertrude Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose.” In the end, however, the art was somehow neither, while being derivative of both. Unable to find the original artistic voice I craved, I decided to focus on writing.

While I have not devoted large amounts of time to creating visual art since my early 20s, it continues to inform so much of what I strive to do as a writer. When I first learned of how Ernest Hemingway sought to write a landscape that was as vibrant and imaginatively alive as any of Cézanne’s, I immediately understood his desire. When I look at Edward Hopper’s work, I aspire to use words that can convey the controlled yet palpable tension so evident in his work. When I stare at a painting by Maine artist Linden Frederick, I hope to someday write a landscape with such brooding power.

essay.jpgI have traveled far and wide for art. I have made trips to New York City simply to linger in front of Picassos at the Museum of Modern Art, or to see Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns at the Guggenheim. One day in London, when I was caught between the implosion of an old life and the beginning of a new, I spent a gray-skied afternoon sitting for long, breathless stretches in the dimly lit Rothko galleries of the Tate Modern. Sitting there, I watched a stream of people pass in front of me: elegant English ladies; young Asian couples with fingers interlaced; little Jamaican kids pulling away from parents to run and giggle; dozens of awkward teenagers in school uniforms looking bored; neatly dressed and perfectly coiffed German tourists with little audio-tour contraptions pressed against their ears. I sat and watched. I stared past the crowds to the enormous Rothkos beyond. After a while, my eyes went out of focus and the people seemed to become one with the paintings.

Art has not only sustained me, it has continually reaffirmed my instinct to move toward the heart of life.

Not long ago, after I had become a parent myself, DeWitt Hardy gifted me the drawing he had made months before I was born. And there I am, a tiny bump just barely stretching my mother’s belly toward the Rubenesque. When I look at that sketch today, I search for hints of my future. I study my mother’s somber face and try to find in DeWitt’s delicate lines some truth beyond the drawing itself.

But the paper is delicate now and yellowed at the edges from age. The graphite is smudged in places. So I handle the drawing delicately, as though it still contains me—happily ensconced in a womb of boundless possibility.

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