Daybook: The Journal of an Artist

I don’t remember how I stumbled onto this book, the journals of renowned 20th century sculptor and painter, Anne Truitt, but they’re full of great bits. She begins to write them in 1974 after two retrospectives (Whitney – NYC and Concoran Gallery – DC) have left her feeling wrung out to dry emotionally. Truitt raises 3 children on her own after her divorce in 1971, subsisting on the capital from her inheritance and whatever work she could sell. Several entries go into the pain of bottoming out financially, toying with the idea of a workaday job but shying away because that would destroy everything creative inside her (sounds familiar!). She finds comfort in the artistic retreats of Yaddo (NY) and Ossabaw Island (GA), taking a reprieve from her family and household cares to focus solely on creating in silence. Her work is primarily painted wood sculptures and paintings, but I’ve yet to find a great resource that collects all of her works in one spot on the interwebs for easy viewing. Perhaps one of the greatest moments in this daybook is when her teenage son admits to not understanding anything she’s been trying to accomplish with her art during his entire life (they share a laugh). Truitt also withstands the vitriol of the Baltimore public that doesn’t appreciate her white Arundel paintings (see below info from physicist re: different ways we perceive things).
At Yaddo:

I have settled into the most comfortable routine I have ever known in my working life. I wake very early and, after a quiet period, have my breakfast in my room: cereal, fruit, nuts, the remainder of my luncheon Thermos of milk, and coffee. Then I write in my notebook in bed. By this time, the sun is well up and the pine trees waft delicious smells into my room. My whole body sings with the knowledge that nothing is expected of me except what I expect of myself. I dress, do my few room chores, walk to the mansion to pick up my lunch box (a sandwich, double fruit, double salad – often a whole head of lettuce) and Thermos of milk, and walk down the winding road to my Stone South studio. At noon, I stop working, walk up through the meadow to West House, have a reading lunch at my desk, and nap. By 2:30 or so I am back in the studio. Late in the afternoon, I return to my room, have a hot bath and dress for dinner. It is heavenly to work until I am tired, knowing that the evening will be effortless. Dinner is a peaceful pleasure. Afterword I return to my solitude, happy to have been in good company, happy to leave it. I read, or write letters, have another hot bath in the semidarkness of my room, and sink quietly to sleep. (p 30-31)

Describing her decision to become an artist:

The first (decision) was to invest in myself, as needed, the money I had inherited from my family. I simply poured my capital into my work. Fortunately – and indeed, more than fortunately, crucially – my husband underwrote the household expenses and I was able to have a very faithful live-in maid who was my friend as well and who shared household responsibilities with me. So I used my financial resources to the hilt.
The second major decision was to increase my energy output and to use it as wisely and fully as I could… If there were fifteen minutes between shopping and carpool, I used them. If I had an hour, or two hours, I rejoiced, but didn’t even waste time feeling happy, just worked. (p 125-126)

On the difficulty of what to do with the sunrise:

Change is easy to convey in writing. In painting, a choice must be made. The delicate changes implicit in rising are so the essence of sunrise that this choice automatically enforces an almost fatal limitation. Naturalistic paintings of nature generally tend toward this kind of dry declamation. In order to convey the essence of a whole range of visual experience in time, I would thus be forced out of naturalistic representation and into a language of art as complicated as words – and more irritating to people. No one questions the fact that verbal language has to be learned, but the commonplaceness of visual experience betrays art; people tend to assume that, because they can see, they can see art. So in the end my ability to convey my experience of the sunrise would depend, first, on my having mastered an abstract language and second, on someone else’s having mastered it too. (p 133)

On people not being able to “see” her work:

The Baltimore exhibit is now open. The reaction was exactly what it always is. Some, most, simply cannot “see” the work at all… This failure to see is not only psychological but can apparently be physical. A physicist explained to me during dinner at the museum last night about the macula lutea, a yellow retinal filter that circumscribes the fovea. Foveal vision, which determines our apprehension of line, is limited by its cellular nature to the perception of red and green only. This perceptive acuity apparently varies little from person to person. The saturation of yellow in the macula lutea, however, varies considerably. It is the nature of this filter that determines our perception of blues. Thus, some people, those with concentrated yellow in the macula lutea, are literally unable to see close changes of hue on the blue end of the spectrum.

On her mother:

She was herself only when alone. I used to watch her brace herself for people; even, occasionally, for me. And then watch her straight, narrow back relax, her shoulders drop a little, as she set out for a walk. (p 32)

On attention/consciousness:

When I painted a chair recently, I noticed that I put the paint on indifferently, smoothly but without particular attention. The results were satisfactory but not in any sense beautiful. Does the attention in itself with which paint is applied in art actually change the effect of the paint? Does the kind of consciousness with which we act determine the quality of our actions? (p 130)

She marvels at the masses’ response to art, but I find something in this that resonates about my own choice of friends/comrades:

The degree to which people are aware is the most handy yardstick for seeing where they stand. How closely have they held on to their capacity to know directly and in their own particular way? To what degree have they eschewed the preconceptions of social conditioning? (p 146)

Balancing intuition against sensory information, and sensitivity to one’s self against pragmatic knowledge of the world, is not a stance unique to artists. The specialness of artists is the degree to which these precarious balances are crucial backups for their real endeavor. Their essential effort is to catapult themselves wholly, without holding back one bit, into a course of action without having any idea where they will end up. (p 26)