EXTRACT: The Mind’s Eye

In this extract from The Mind’s Eye, the late JUDITH MASON’s book about art and the creative process, the acclaimed artist explores artist’s block, suggesting various ways of dealing with this frustrating phenomenon.

Judith Mason’s Self Portrait at 90
Judith Mason’s “Self Portrait at 90”.

This is a real affliction and will plunge you into despair at some time in your life. It is peculiar to the creative arts. Carjackers, arms dealers and nursery school teachers don’t wake up wondering how they are going to spend their day and dentists don’t whirr their drills in hopeless reverie. Your muse has returned to his/her boyfriend in the Czech Republic and left you bereft. You could take evasive action. Get drunk, as Hemingway and almost everybody else did. (Pleasant but counterproductive.) You could brood in cafés. (So last century.) Overeat? (Plump ruins your Look.)

But let us be serious about this dark night of the soul. Have you been overworking? Maybe you are running on empty because you need a break, a change of scene, even if it is just walking around a different part of your neighbourhood. Most probably you have forgotten how to play with your creativity and are anxious because nothing substantial or sellable is being produced. Take time out. Don’t touch pencil or brush for a week. Leaving your easel may persuade you that the opening in the arms industry really is your bag.

If blockage has not destroyed your vocation, try playing games with your surroundings in order to ignite new ideas. Russian roulette with a dictionary is a great idea. Open at five random pages and select the most promising subject. I have just this minute found GYRE, IN VIVO, SHEWEL, HARPY, and DEFLAGRATE. Harpies I drew long ago so now I read up on SHEWEL and find a clue to something. It means ‘a scarecrow or mark to scare deer’ so I start scrawling versions and options and soon I am thinking about being a deer, and being frightened, and what shape or form would scare me, and … and … away I go. Move over, Landseer, and your mawkish Stag at Bay!

Another game is to clean your kitchen cupboards. Yup. Take everything out and while you are dusting mouse droppings from corners and eating stale crackers, look at your stored items. Tuna tins? Imagine their containing canned mermaid. Draw the label. Tins of ham? Imagine their dropping over a cliff edge like the Gadarene Swine. (You’re looking for a sort of Andy Warhol/Eugene Delacroix vibe here.) Check the salad drawer in your fridge and paint the rotting leeks in plastic wrap, the sliced cabbage like an MRI scan, the wilted lettuce. Call it ‘Signifiers of the Arbitrary’ and away you go! Now notice that your cat is sitting in sullen fury before the food you have offered it. Tiger, tiger burning bright in the forests of shrimp in aspic. You can make something of that. Then go outside and listen. Try to draw birdsong, the sound of a jackhammer, laughter, a siren. Of course, it is not as easy as I suggest. But use your sense of humour and the absurd. They are tools with which to release lateral thinking at a time when you really dread that you have lost something precious.

As with most forms of depression, artist’s block eventually vanishes, and it helps to accept that it comes and goes. Sometimes artist’s block is a cover for the unravelling of complex ideas from our subconscious. Curiously, the older we get, the less blocked we become. Ideas flow freely and we have a different problem to deal with – the sense that we are clutching at the edge of time by our fingernails. We won’t complete all we want to do, but going out brush in hand makes for a pleasing obituary.

The Mind’s Eye is published by Books & Books Press and is available from Amazon as an ebook. Read Gregory Kerr’s review of the book as well as our interview with Mason about her reading habits and favourite books here.

REVIEW: The Mind’s Eye

We remember acclaimed artist Judith Mason who passed away a year ago with GREGORY KERR’s review of The Mind’s EyeMason’s book about art and the creative process.

The Mind's Eye by Judith Mason

In the late 1960s I was a student of Fine Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand. I was not a good student; I tended to take the lecturers for granted or to get into conflict with them. I was a difficult student. I think I wasted some splendid opportunities to improve myself. I was a lazy student. It was not their fault I was indolent, but some of the indolence came from a refusal to buy into the current fashions, which were flat, hardedge, and to me, sterile and pointless. I was a cocksure little bastard, for sure, and deserved everything I didn’t get from the brilliant academics who ran the show.

However, there was at least one person on the teaching staff for whom I had nothing but the utmost respect and affection, and that was the astonishing Judith Mason. Judy was teaching senior students in the department, but no one objected if there were gatecrashers at her crit sessions and though very callow and junior, I was a gatecrasher of note. She stuck in the brain like a special kind of revelatory sage, speaking with the tongues of angels and art students. She was not puffed up; she got to the nitty-gritties of the everyday existential crises of being an imaginative painter (and thus a demonstrably frivolous and irrelevant person) in a world of conscientious pragmatism. She took it for granted that we all wanted to slay the beast of painting, to find the path and the truth and the way and the light. She was a shining example of the artist, the ham-fisted wrestler with the craft and sullen business of finding, but she was also something else, something so rare that it intoxicated. She could find the words and the images and the poetics to speak directly to the acolyte. She made sense that was not the elegant sense of the art historians and design lecturers, but the thew-and-sinew sense of the maker.

Reading The Mind’s Eye was to be taken back 45 years into that studio in the John Moffat Building, listening to the dark-haired young woman with the strangely plat accent and the twinkle – the inevitable twinkle – of anti-earnestness sweetening the stern seriousness beneath the monologue. In this publication –  a wonderful companion to art-making –  Mason allows herself the freedom to write as she speaks, from the hip, from the heart and (you’d better believe it) from the head. She addresses all the departments – the neuroses, the need for discipline, the compulsion to form. How does one tackle the metaphysics of the human face, the living anatomy, the stagnant psyche that refuses to paint? What is beautiful? (The answer will surprise you, but you must first draw or paint shrouded things, shadowed things, moving things, harsh, gross and edible things.)

Since I left Wits and her diverse influences, I have been making a living as a teacher of art – theory, education, drawing, painting, even history – and have developed strategies that address a range of issues: conceptual, perceptual, technical, historical, philosophical and psychological.  I am quite proud of the strategies. I didn’t know until I read Mason’s book how very much my well-worn ideas, theories and methodology must have been shaped by her. I kept saying, “But I say that!” and I do, but so does she and so well, and she probably said if first. I shall be setting her text as prescribed reading for my professional students because she says things that absolutely are required drumming-into-the-head stuff for anyone faced with the prospect of making art. She is gung-ho on looking very hard at things and choosing things that do not immediately declare themselves to be lovely. She is stern with base matters like techniques and (contra mode) believes passionately in the dark and numinous power of the creative imagination expressed in a stern and controlled emotion – what Yeats called “the rag and bone shop of the human heart”.

Anyone who knows the history of Judith Mason, as I do –  the clot-fisted schoolboy acolyte who saw her drawings in the 101 Gallery in 1967 (and had a damascene experience right there and then) and who has followed this straight-talking mystic over 50 years of poetics, romance, religion, Africa and her place in it, who has learned from her what it is like to stand aghast and amused at the demented business of making paintings, despite all kinds of logic and reason – will recognise in this pearl of a book much of the commentary that has accompanied her artwork over the years; what she herself has described (if my memory serves) as “the fragments that shore up our ruins”.

From the rich soil of a fabulously informed and intrepid imagination, Mason has grown a history of dark metaphors for our singular place in the evolution of Africa. Her book, despite her disclaimer, “this is not a how-to book. It is a how-to-think-about-how-to book,” is the perfect concordance to that history.

Gregory Kerr is an artist and writer who has served as a professor of fine arts at the University of Stellenbosch. This review first appeared in Ceramics Southern Africa Magazine.

The Mind’s Eye is published by Books & Books Press and is available from Amazon as an ebook. Read our interview with Mason about her reading habits and favourite books here.

EXTRACT: Rapid Fire by John Maytham

In Rapid Fire, veteran broadcaster JOHN MAYTHAM has collected questions submitted by 567 CapeTalk listeners to test his remarkable general knowledge in the ever popular insert of the same name on his afternoon drive-time show. Here are a few of some the oddest, arcane and most surprising questions – and answers.

John Maytham

Are there animals that can live without water?

The North American kangaroo rat is most often cited in internet discussions of this topic. These rats do need water to survive, but they have evolved such that it is possible for them to go through their entire life cycle, between three and five years, without ever drinking water. They collect seeds during moist conditions, and live off the nutrition and moisture stored in those seeds.

Then there is an extraordinary water-wise amphibian, the Australian water-holding frog. It stores water in pockets of skin all over its body, but holds most of it in the bladder. It is able to store double its body weight in water, and can live for up to five years without needing to take a drink. Local Aboriginals, if they’re thirsty while out in the bush, will try to catch one of these frogs and squeeze the water directly from the frog’s bladder into their mouths.

Why are weddings rings traditionally worn on the fourth finger of the left hand in many Western cultures?

This is based on a traditional (but incorrect) belief that there is a vein that runs directly from that finger to the heart. It was called the vena amoris, the “vein of love”.

What is the link between the musical works of Handel and Bach, and the one-rand coin?

The words Soli Deo Gloria (To God alone the glory) appear on the one-rand coin. Those same words are also part of the dedication of many works by the likes of Bach and Handel.

Can a vegan eat a fig?

Hmmm, lots of nuance in the answer! It depends – on the fig and on the vegan. Some figs, like the Smyrna, are pollinated in such a way that the female wasp dies inside the fig. The body will be dissolved by acid activity, but strictly speaking,

there will be animal matter inside the fig. Some very strict vegans might see that as reason to avoid the fruit. Forgive me for being technical, but some fig species are parthenocarpic, which means they develop fruit-like structures that don’t require pollination. (Don’t worry, I don’t understand it either.) All vegans can eat these varieties with a clear conscience.

Bananas, on the other hand, are a different story. If they come from a field that has been sprayed with a pesticide like chitosan, then very strict vegans will look the other way because shrimp and crab shells are on chitosan’s list of ingredients. Did someone mention slippery slopes?

The first British astronomer at the Cape, Fearon Fallows, is buried in the grounds of the South African Astronomical Observatory in a suburb of Cape Town. His grave has one very unusual feature. What is it?

The grave is twelve feet deep. Fallows knew he was dying and, fearing that his burial site would be disturbed by grave robbers, he asked to be buried twelve feet down. As the observatory is on rocky ground, the digging must have been very hard work!

What was bought in the first-ever bitcoin purchase?

Don’t ask me to explain bitcoin – it’s dark matter as far as I’m concerned. All I can do is report the fact that on 22 May 2010, Laszlo Hanyecz made the first real-world bitcoin transaction by buying two pizzas in Jacksonville, Florida, for 10 000 BTC. And the fact that, had he made himself a sandwich instead and held onto those bitcoin (bitcoins?), then at the time of writing this book those 10 000 BTC were worth $11 million. (I hope those pizzas were really good.) [Ed’s note: today those pizzas are now worth more than $105 million.]

Advertisements for watches usually feature a watch face set at a particular time. What is that time and why has it been chosen?

The time is ten past ten, because this position of the watch hands is seen as the best possible framing of the manufacturer’s logo and also creates the happy impression of a smiling face.

Why did George Dawson rise to fame in the US?

He learnt to read at the age of 98. Still described as ‘America’s poster child for literacy’, Dawson had a rough life, being the grandchild of slaves and first put to work at the age of four. He died at the age of 103, but enjoyed national attention in the five years between learning to read and passing away. Two universities conferred honorary degrees on him; television programmes were made about him; he appeared on Oprah, where he said, “It’s never too late to learn, I’m still learning now”; he had a school named after him; and he co-authored a biographical work, Life Is So Good, when he was 102.

Rapid Fire is published by Tafelberg.

REVIEW: Asylum

GARETH LANGDON reviews Marcus Low’s quietly devastating debut novel.

Asylum

Post apocalyptic motifs are overdone. Between The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games, contemporary media seems to scream the need for us all to be prepared for the worst – for the coming of the end. Whether or not this is a universal set of fears, or something unique to Hollywood is not much of a question. What matters is that it is a tired trope, and that anyone hoping to tackle the genre is going to have an uphill battle.

Marcus Low makes light work of this challenge in his debut novel, Asylum. The novel follows, through a series of eloquent and detailed journal entries, the plight of James Barry. Barry has been diagnosed with a fatal lung disease – likely tuberculosis – and finds himself incarcerated in a treatment facility or modern day sanitorium, in the middle of the Karoo. His days drag on at a snail’s pace as he gazes out of the window at the dry bones of the earth, watching nothing happen, and writing regularly in his notebooks. He has made some friends though, and as inmates are want to do, they begin planning their escape. The novel traces Barry’s internal struggles as well as the planning and execution of their proposed escape. Composed of notebook fragments and interjected with editor’s notes, written from what is ostensibly the point of view of whoever discovered the notebooks, the novel has an intensely personal feel.

Asylum is at once apocalyptic rendering, and psychological exploration. Barry is a sensitive character, with a painful yet mysteriously unsubstantiated past. His voice reads as hurt rather than angry, as resigned rather than determined. The notebooks function as both a solace for him, and as a way of leaving a legacy – one which is, at times, deliberately skewed. The choice of setting in the Karroo works well for this genre as the vast expanse of the landscape, as well as its dry, dusty harshness, create an atmosphere that lends itself to a story of loneliness, longing and resignation.

The plague in Asylum is more insidious however. Rather than go the obvious route of monsters or Orwellian dictatorship, the author has chosen a silent killer – a lung disease, airborne – that slowly causes deterioration in its hosts, presenting as coughing up of blood, tiredness, and the odd hallucination. Low seems far more interested in the interior conflict of Barry however, and the lung disease serves more as a measure of time, counting down the days to his death as it progresses, and as a parallel to his mental deterioration.

Like the disease that afflicts Barry, the sense of this novel overall is also insidious. The reader has the sense all along that something is very wrong, but that what’s wrong is less important than the characters’ experience of it. What matters to Low is what is going on in their heads – the humanness of it all – which explains the use of journals as the primary medium in the novel. Cleverly, by focusing on a single point of view, Low avoids many of the traps of modern end-of-the world fiction, the distractions of monsters and dictators. Instead, we are presented with a very human experience in an inhumane world, and are made to appreciate the moments of light that make our own experience bearable, even if for Barry as for some of is, these come in the form of dreams and hallucinations rather than genuine human experience.

Rather than offering escapism, Low is brave enough to dig deeper. He explores humanity without sacrificing the enticing nature of mystery that many apocalyptic-genre novels do well. The choice of the Karroo as a setting also eases the imaginative leap that a South African reader has to make, a feeling all too close to home running throughout the narrative.

As a debut, Asylum is cleverly crafted and engaging – an encouraging sign of things to come for an exciting South African talent.

Asylum is published by Picador Africa.