In Victoria on the weekend, I spent a happy half-hour in Russell Books on Fort Street. It was hard to know where to start so I simply browsed at random and came away with a bag of unexpected treasures, one of them Anne Truitt’s Prospect: The Journal of an Artist.
When my third child, Angelica, was born in 1985, I wondered if I’d ever write again. I’d published two collections of poetry in my twenties, and a chapbook, and when my sons were tiny, I somehow found time to slowly but steadily write enough poems for a third book. John and I were building a house in those years and the word “busy” doesn’t even begin to describe the days but poems would begin, often in the night, and bit by slow bit I’d work on them, gradually complete drafts, and revise. It may be the rosy glow of memory that has me remembering that I often thought of my life as seamless, moving from washing diapers to making soup to cobbling together lines of poetry.
A third child tipped the balance, though. In part this was because there were added elements to the domestic routine beyond simply childcare and daily household work. Forrest began to attend a pre-school in our small community and that entailed driving back and forth several days a week from our home at the north end of the Sechelt Peninsula to the village where all the services are located. And when he began kindergarten a year or so after Angie’s birth, then Brendan went to pre-school; and somehow there was never enough time to sit at my desk and find my way to writing. Yet I was quite certain that elements of daily life were potent elements of what could be art, if I could only find a way to put them together. The smell of fresh laundry, the act of making bread, the transformation of homely vegetables into soup, the basket of cottons crying out to be quilts, the beauty of my sleeping children, my husband, the way moonlight illuminated our dark trees or stars pierced the night sky over Sakinaw Lake – I wanted so much to do them justice. Somehow. Someday. And I wanted to engage in the physicality of art and its potential materials, though I didn’t know quite how to begin.
I can’t remember when I bought Anne Truitt’s Daybook but it was certainly during those early years of motherhood. She was an American painter and sculptor (1921-2004) and she wrote beautifully, powerfully, of the sources of her work and her own process of making art.
“I sat for a long while in one of the rectangular courtyards, listening to the fountain. Feeling the artists all around me, I slowly took an unassuming place (for two of my own sculptures were somewhere in the museum) among the people whose lives, as all lives do, had been distilled into objects that outlasted them. Quilts, pin cushions, chairs, tables, houses, sculptures, paintings, tilled and retilled fields, gardens, poems—all of validity and integrity. Like earthworms, whose lives are spent making more earth, we human beings also spend ourselves into the physical. A few of us leave behind objects judged, at least temporarily, worthy of preservation by the culture into which we were born. The process is, however, the same for us all. Ordered into the physical, in time we leave the physical, and leave behind us what we have made in the physical.”
She wrote honestly and convincingly of the difficulties of balancing art and motherhood while convinced that the two had areas of compatibility and were connected to the reservoirs of her creativity. Every couple of months, I’d reach for Daybook and read a page at random, finding in it both wisdom and solace. I’d like to say that I always had faith I’d begin to write again once my children were all in school but in truth I had nights of despair when I couldn’t imagine ever knowing how to make a sentence, let alone a paragraph, a chapter, or (oh how?) a book.
I’ve been reading Prospect this week. Written when the artist was in her seventies, preparing for a series of important retrospectives of her work, it is as rich and intelligent as Daybook. Truitt remembers the process of making her early sculptures and she captures so marvellously the moments when one conceives of a work, in this instance her wooden sculpture First:
“And, suddenly, the whole landscape of my childhood flooded into my inner eye: plain white clapboard fences and houses, barns, solitary trees in flat fields, all set in the wide winding tidewaters around Easton. At one stroke, the yearning to express myself transformed into a yearning to express what this landscape meant to me, not for my own emotional release but for the release of a radiance illuminating it behind and beyond appearance. I saw that I could trust that radiance, could rely on its presence, even in the humblest object.”
There are many thousands of books in Russell Books. It would take weeks to go through the shelves properly and a more methodical person would work out a system which would involve using those ladders which leaned against the tall columns of books. But somehow on Saturday morning, in between the flurry of activities leading up to Brendan and Cristen’s wedding that afternoon, I found the one book that I needed to remind me of those early years and to offer some guidance for the work ahead.