Interviewsand Articles

 

From the editor w & c #37: The Gift

by richard whittaker, Dec 6, 2019


 

 




Art Labor, Art Play - Davis Dimock



Seeing that we have an interview with Lewis Hyde, readers may assume we’ve drawn our theme from his book, The Gift. (We have a fascinating interview with Hyde, but it’s about his latest book, A Primer for Forgetting.) Instead, it was my conversation with an old friend, Davis Dimock, that sparked our theme. His relationship with his own work entirely fits with what Hyde so eloquently expresses in The Gift: “A work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.”
     I’m tempted to think that all artists, at least intuitively, understand this. But as a practical matter, how does one proceed with this understanding? As Hyde puts it, “A gift is a thing we do not get from our own efforts.” Yes. But while some gifts come without an effort of one’s own, there’s another side to consider. It’s expressed in the saying, “Good luck comes to those who are prepared for it.”
     I’m reminded of a conversation with Harry Frank, whose work is featured in this issue. We were looking at one of his monotypes when he said, “As I made my first mark, somehow I knew this one was going to be special. I don’t remember anything between making the first mark and this last one [pointing]. I suddenly came to and the piece was finished.” Magic.
     As I listened to this account, I’d already settled on the theme for this issue and most of the material was already in hand. Wondering how he would respond, I said, “It sounds like it was a gift.”
     “Oh, absolutely!” he said, as if I’d put my finger on the essence of it. But then his expression changed. “I can go for weeks on end working in the studio and nothing of the sort happens.” This is the other side of it. It’s something that Dimock understands very well. The gift is not obtained by grasping; it appears. And yet effort is essential.   
     As for the objects made and the work done—with Dimock, they’re not for sale. They are to be given, however. Only one other artist I can think of (Ehren Tool, issue #8) holds this practice at the center of his work. The two have travelled different paths, but are alike in their commitment to this gesture essential for preserving a relationship of meaning for their work. As I see it, this attitude is close to the Benedictine practice of ora et labora (prayer and labor).  
     In his account of his photography project of the last three years, Paul Van Slambrouck writes: “My days in Tomales begin the night before with an early turn in. My alarm is set for 4:30 a.m., but the fact is I don’t need it. I’m up and out with the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning.” His photos capture something of the feeling one can have in the presence of the beauty of nature. And the timing is serendipitous, since the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) is just a few months away. Van Slambrouck’s photos also remind us of what can be preserved when commercial land development is kept at bay. Certainly, the visionary work of MALT’s founders, Ellen Strauss and Phyllis Faber, is a gift. Through it, 54,000 acres of farmland in California’s Marin County have been protected in perpetuity.  
     Although in our conversation with Lewis Hyde The Gift is not discussed directly, there are interesting connections in his recent book, which is a wide-ranging meditation on the beneficial aspects of forgetting. One thing he focuses on is habit—its benefits and drawbacks. He cites John Cage’s observations about listening to music, for instance. After one has listened to the same piece a few times, its freshness is lost. While habituation keeps us from being overwhelmed by stimulation, it also blocks us from the vivid contact of really being present. A big part of the appeal of new places is precisely this experience of seeing something for the first time. Simply put, one feels more alive. Hyde quotes Dogen Zenji, who puts this in its purest form: “To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to see the world as it is.”
     Pavithra Mehta is gifted in many ways, one of which is writing. Her short meditation, Fortuities, is a lyrical paean from a crack in the world of routine. It reveals a treasure hidden only by our lack of attention. One could ask, what other treasures are hiding this way? And it was thanks to an invitation from Pavi that I met Petra Wolf. Petra left her work as an environmental engineer when she realized that reducing the carbon footprint of our gadgets and machines is not enough to avert environmental disaster. Instead, it’s a spiritual problem; society has to change. What unfolded in her life at that point is the story of a new direction and improbable gifts. She relates, “It was in wintertime when I had this inner call: Now is the time. Go on the path.” Our conversation with Petra is a fascinating account of her journey.  
     And readers may agree that Indigo Animal’s journey continues to escape literary categories.  
     Welcome to #37. –rw    

 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.  

 

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