Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

You Asked, no. 7: Inviting the soul

Bullington-Youmans interview party, continued. In response to a request to interview some of my painter friends, I have been interviewing Mary Boxley Bullington. As she, in turn, insisted on interviewing me, a part of the You Asked series will be composed of our questions to each other.
Mary Boxley Bullington,
"Kells." (a.k.a., "Carpet Page.")
Acrylic and gesso on paper with collage,
31" x 22." 2015.

Available at The Art Store,
a gallery in Charleston, West Virginia

In the comments, you said to Paul Digby, "I was bemoaning the slack time in my process to an older artist friend, who said, simply, 'You are not a robot.' This helped. But in the midst of summer or winter doldrums, I sometime wish I had a bot I could send into the studio--to clean it up, if nothing else!" Don't you think that time that often appears wasteful to others is essential to the making of art? If you agree, can you say why?

I absolutely agree. Walt Whitman says, "I loaf and invite my soul, / I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass" (Song of Myself). Creating anything good requires down time as well as studio time or time at the typewriter. Down time is not, for me anyway, time in the grocery store or sorting and washing clothes; it is not lunching with friends. I also need real segments of time when I'm not creating and not doing anything that looks constructive. Not because I'm thinking up great ideas. I'm not. I'm just letting the well refill.

How? For me, that's mostly time I'm going to spend reading, or looking at pictures in books, and napping. I know I ought to walk more, especially in the woods around here, but I've gotten out of the habit, and in cold or hot weather, I just don't want to. It's important to spend some time every day or almost every day, even if it's only an hour, in the studio shuffling collage pieces around or using a paint brush at random. This is free play, and it's the only way I know to discover something new.

"Where is My Big Toe?"  Ink on card stock, 5" x 7"
"Doodling has its pleasures, and so does looking at doodling!"
-MBB, from private messaging
Click to look closer.
I also need, especially before I buckle down to work after a hiatus, to just plain loaf. I like to go to what Mama used to call "early attic" antique malls and browse. Don't have to buy anything, don't even have to be looking for anything. But the proximity to old things—china, furniture, dolls, tools, even bric-a-brac—inevitably brings memories of my family and my grandmother's house—her "cool room" where she kept pickles and jams--and her kitchen, but also her formal rooms, her elegant wall paper and curtains, the straw carpets she put down in summer, the waxing of the floors in the fall before putting the wool rugs back down. This doesn't trigger ideas for art per se. It just lets me remember things and times that went into making—ME. Sometimes these excursions make me sad, and I'll have to leave. But mostly these reveries fill me with gratitude for the people I've known so well and lost, and for the rich textures of my early life.

"Human Kind Among Others"  Ink on card stock, 5" x 7"
Art books also get their due. Over the years I've built up a decent art library—and I'm still always on the looking-out for more books. I can spend an hour just looking at pictures, sometimes analytically, often not so much. Photographs also help—or anything that I find I'm interested in. Last year, it was archaeology and the early history of man. More recently I've begun an immersion study of Hitler's rise. I'm reading William Shirer again. I went into an "antiquey" place thinking to find a new art book—and I found Rembrandt, and some other good stuff, but what do I buy? Seig Heil! An Illustrated History of Germany From Bismark to Hitler (1974) by Stefan Lorant, the man who basically invented photojournalism. I read a little Shirer, then I pore over the black and white photos, mostly unremarkable in quality, in Lorant's great big book.

Am I wasting time? Yep! But I think the key to the constructive wasting of time is to let myself "loaf at my ease," inviting my soul to wander and contemplate whatever the hell it wants. My favorite Dr. Seuss when I was a child was McElligot's Pool: "'Young Man,' laughed the farmer, 'You're sort of a Fool./ You'll never catch a fish/ In McElligot's Pool.'" And the boy who is fishing goes off on a riff that includes journeys down subterranean rivers from the Bahamas to the North Pole. I may or may not get a single picture out of the grim reading reading I'm doing right now, nor out of studying Lorant's Seig Heil, but I also know I ignore my natural inclinations and interests, however arbitrary, at my own artistic peril.
"Birds of a Feather" Ink on card stock, 5" x 7"
Click to catch the smallest birds....


  1. Illuminating post on the creative process (with illustrations!).
    I know just what you mean, though for me,such often frequently includes grocery shopping, laundry, or cooking as well as reading or outright napping.

    1. Some of those would fall into the category of what most people would call usefulness, wouldn't they?

  2. I embrace the notion of "wasting time" but doing it well.

    1. Well, I hope you are finding some in your current travels.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.