Author Archives: malcolmarmstrong
Rapunzel, Sumatran Rhinoceros
This is site is long overdue for an update which will be happening this summer.
I have written here before about the lost art of memorization particularly of poetry, and a theory that it provided artists a rich wellspring of inspiration. For example, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and probably just about any Florentine artist could quote Dante at length.
The closest equivalent, perhaps, today, is to quote pop music lyrics (just about the only umm verse most people have memorized). I often hear essayists, ministers, and authors quote them when explaining some perplexing aspect of life (“you know, when you feel like that Rolling Stone’s song ‘get off of my cloud”) . But really, aren’t we drinking from a rather shallow well here?
Now comes a book that examines the historic use of memorized poetry in the classroom: Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem. The book (according to reviews, I have not read it) explores uses of memorization and theories behind it. It sounds more like an academic survey and thoughtful history that one of those “how memorizing poetry can make you great and give you and edge” books.
Some quotes from various reviews:
The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”
She quotes one Percival Chubb, an American who wrote in a frequently reprinted book on teaching English in the elementary school that although memory and recitation are useful in “confirming the child in correct ways of speaking .??.??. its greatest service is in storing the mind with the priceless treasure of the noblest thoughts and feelings that have been uttered by the race.” These early impressions and memories “impart a tone to one’s spiritual system for life, rich and pure enough to outsing all base and cruder songs and to set the pitch of character.”Reason for Rhyme
The lost art of memorizing (and reciting) verse.
It’s been awhile since I had done any sketching at the American Museum of Natural History, which was surprisingly void of tourists today. I wasn’t terribly satisfied with any of these, but consciously chose the animal subject which gives me the most difficulty – antelope and gazelle (and whatever there genus or family or whatever the Linnaeusian term is).
This is about the twentieth or so study I have done of this 15th century French statue in the Medieval hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. No two drawing are ever the same, but I have it a good gauge of my drawing abilities. When I have been out of practice for awhile, I will do a sketch of this statue, and compare it my other studies.
I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art the other day to revisit some favorite paintings. One of them was this painting by Thomas Moran:
In the American Wing (glad to see at least some of the paintings are being hung correctly so that the overhead lights dont’ throw a glare on the painting) I realized that I was only spending about thirty seconds to a minute actually looking at the paintings. I have spent hours in front of paintings doing master copies, I can certainly spend a good twenty minutes in front a of a painting if I am sketching or taking notes about it; but I found it very difficult to just ‘look’.
I looked at my watch and told myself I would look at this painting for five minutes. The first two minutes were torture (and this is one of my favorite paintings!), and made me realize how we are conditioned to glance, to expect an image before us to change in some way (as in moving images); It is easy to become quite restless when they don’t.
However, after about two minutes the painting, or rather, how I was looking at it, began to change, and I noticed things about the color and composition I had not noticed in my sub-30 second looks at it.
It was almost as if the painting did became a moving image because different aspect of it ‘come to life’.
I mentioned this last year, but it bears repeating. When Christina Rossetti was 17 she posed as the Virgin Mary for her brother’s famous annunciation painting:
She was a quite a devout Anglican, which is why her brother chose her as the young Virgin Mary. Later she would write this beautiful carol:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.
2. Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
3. Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
but his mother only, in her maiden bliss,
worshiped the beloved with a kiss.
4. What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him: give my heart.
The Neapolitan Creche at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photos do not do it justice, but do give some sense of its beauty
I have been rather busy on other projects, and my drawing has been suffering. But I have managed to squeeze in quick sketches here and there – this was done between bites of a sandwich during my lunch ‘hour’ (more like 20 minutes!) .
The carving is above a doorway at Saint Barts’s church, on Park avenue and 51st.
I have recently been busy with my ‘day job’ and some other things (moving for example) and haven’t had time to paint. But I managed to squeeze in some drawing during my lunch hour (well half hour actually) and in bits and pieces. Drawing and painting are both physical and mental processes – and like any other physical process if you don’t do it, you get ‘out of shape’.
Don’t have time to write? Can’t get in front of a computer? That didn’t stop Solzhenitsyn. In fact, Solzhenitsyn looks at his time in the gulag as essential to his becoming a writer.
In response to the question how he became a writer, Solzhenitsyn said that in a serious sense this did not take place until he found himself in prison.
I had tried my hand at literary writing even before the war, and had made determined efforts of this kind while I was a university student, but this could hardly be called serious writing because I lacked life experience. I began to write in earnest in prison, doing it in a conspiratorial fashion, concealing the very fact that I was writing—this was absolutely crucial. My method involved remembering the texts composed and learning them by heart. I started doing this with verse, then with prose as well.
I have often written abou the importance of memorizing poetry and the importance the excercise of memory. Memory is perhaps the most underused and under appreciated mental facility of the modern age. We have become mentally lazy because there is no longer a necessity to memorize things – or so we think; cheap printed material, and now digital, searchable archives mean people can reference quotes and information easily and quickly. But relying on this makes as much sense as allowing your muscles to atrophy and not exercising simply because there are cars, planes and escalators so there is no need to be as physically fit as in the past.
Secondly, he though he could not write, that did not stop him from ‘writing’ and creating in his mind. He didn’t say “Oh well, I don’t have a typewriter (or the time, or paper, or whatever).
Most of us, thank God, will never have to experience the gulag (though I would not be so complacent about this), but we have experienced ‘gulags’ of our own making, or monotonous jobs that we look at ‘life draining’ it is often in those experiences that are necessary to draw our deepest creative facilities, if we make use of them. On a lighter note, a favorite author of mine, PG Wodehouse made use of his terrible, unpleasant job at a bank to write one of my favorite ‘novel’s by him “Psmith in the City”.
Lastly, Solzhenitsyn would never and could never have composed and created this work if he did not have strong faith and a sense of hope. I am not talking about Oprah-TheSecret-Jesus-is-going-to-give-me-a-new-BMW sort of hope; but rather a deep, serious, faith.
You can read the rest of the article here.
How many times have you skipped writing/painting/creating because you don’t have the ‘perfect’ tools, or waited for days for that ‘perfect’ brush to arrive? That didn’t stop the famed missionary and explorer Dr. Livingstone:
In 1871, David Livingstone spent five months stranded in a small village in the Congo called Nyangwe. He had run out of writing paper and had nearly run out of ink, so he improvised the materials for his diary by writing over an old copy of The Standard newspaper with ink made from the seeds of a local berry.
Oh, and he was also malnourished and suffering from the typical smörgåsbord of tropical diseases that European explorers picked up in Africa.
We all have ‘favorite’ tools to work with, favorite surfaces to work on and optimal conditions we like to work under. But the lack of those conditions should never be an excuse for not doing.
You can read the whole article and view the original pages and of the field diary here.
These are some quick sketches I did in front of the New York Public Library on 42nd and 5th. Each took about ten minutes.
As I always emphasize, you can always find time in most days for a little drawing. It doesn’t have to be a grand old building like the New York Public Library.. Durer, for example, found beauty in ordinary turf.
Being an artist can be likened to being a athlete or a ballet dancer. You stop practicing, you get ‘out of shape’. I have had a busy few weeks of non-art but necessary obligations, and found that “I’ll skip drawing today” turned into nearly a month. When I did pick up a pencil, I could tell my skills had already dulled a bit. That is why I always carry two sketchbooks- a larger sized one and a literally pocket sized one that can be carried anywhere. I stopped by Grace church today, enjoyed the silence and peace, and did a quick twelve minute sketch of the pulpit. I feel better.
There is always time to draw. If you hone your skills a bit every day, they will improve much faster than if you just draw once a week. As noted elsewhere, you can also draw ‘in your head’ and draw from memory later – this is a fun exercise for the mind and brain. So even if you forget your sketchbook, always find time to draw.
I came across a quote to that effect and it struck me as.. wise….