Taking Time to Reflect

How writing about someone else can be a creative release

After posting 16 stories in three months about Stephen Brophy’s artwork and my reactions to it, to him, to us, I thought it’d make sense to pause and take stock. I’ve described how Steve liked to stand back from his work midstream and, invariably, with coffee and cigarette in hand, assess progress before proceeding.

That’s what I’d like to do here. Stand back and, with coffee and Magritte’s pipe in hand, reflect on what this project has meant to our sons, to me, and to others who have kindly lent their memories or support.

Everyone Loves a Good Magritte.

René Magritte, “The Treachery of Images,” 1928–29, oil on canvas, 25" X 37"

This Magritte is particularly apt for discerning inherent tensions in writing someone else’s story.

The painting questions the wisdom of the image over the words: which one do you subscribe to more? The strength of the unambiguous depiction of the pipe? Or the words declaring, in school-marm script, “This is not a pipe”?

It’s that tension that is so riveting, playful and perplexing.

Because I choose to write about Steve’s artwork, I have images to discuss. But I’m also in the story. So are his children, his niece Anna, his friends and fellow artists upstate New York. So there’s a tension, for me, about stepping up as champion for an artist, even if I was married to him.

To mediate this tension, I try hard to be honest in what I write. I delete pet phrases or sentences if they aren’t true to Steve, his art, his journey.

But to address the central conundrum of Magritte’s painting, I declare, after 16 posts, I am not a writer.

Or, in keeping with the spirit of the Surrealist’s assertion: Je ne suis pas un écrivain. Do I continue to pose as a writer and attach Steve’s artwork to what I write? Do I keep going?

Awakening to Possibility.

Upon consideration, Yes! I continue the writing project. And I hope to resolve this Magrittian tension by considering all tangible benefits of doing so.

Here’s a list in order of possibilities as they occurred to me, as I slowly awoke to their promise:

  1. A father’s legacy. My first impulse was to catalogue Steve’s work for his sons. He has six of them, the last two with me. But since I can’t speak for the entirety of Steve’s life as an artist with equal conviction, I’m mostly speaking to our boys, Jake (28) and Eli (25). If they didn’t like the posts, I would’ve stopped.
  2. A way to mourn. I may not have had a successful marriage with a most complicated man, but I did have a lifelong partnership with him. We talked most nights and spent a weekend together every four or five weeks. My missing him is so fierce that, by focusing on his artwork, I can “relocate” him within myself to give me as much joy as sadness.
  3. Reconnecting to writing about art. In ancient times, I got a masters degree in art history and worked the first 25 years of my career in art museums (in communications) writing about art, artists, movements, etc. Those chops can rust like the proverbial bicycle, but with some well-placed oil we’re getting the squeaks out.
  4. A way to write in my personal voice. Yet despite this early training as an art historian and time on the beat pumping out press releases, I wrote in an academic or institutional voice. It is a fair statement to say this way of writing doesn’t unleash a scintilla of creativity. Thus, and finally:
  5. Unleashing a submerged desire for creative expression: Yay, we finally get to the gist of the enterprise. I have never felt so elated and free as I have in constructing these stories: for no one else’s editing pen or approval or grade or critique. Ce n’est pas un test! Now, really finally:
  6. How to keep going, when the Steve stories end. I am thinking of writing about individual artworks in museum collections that provoke my interest, for whatever reason. But I’m not ready to shut down this project…. Next I photograph more of Steve’s paintings sitting in storage in Hudson, NY. These hopefully will inspire more stories. We’ll have to see.

I end this self-reflection with a couple of photos from one of our last outings before Steve became ill, visiting an estate near Rhinebeck, New York.

The author, Jessica Schwartz, and the artist, Stephen Brophy, summer 2014.
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