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.

THE READER: Lerato Bereng

Born in Maseru, Lesotho, Lerato Bereng is a curator living and working in Johannesburg. In 2007 she received a Bachelor of Fine Art and in 2014 graduated with a Masters in Fine Art from Rhodes University, Grahamstown. She is currently an associate director at Stevenson gallery in Johannesburg and has been working there since 2011.  From 2007 to 2009 Bereng was selected as one of five young curators in CAPE’s Young curator’s Programme for which she curated “Thank You Driver“, an exhibition on mini-bus taxis as part of the Cape ’09 Biennale.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m Not Your Weekend Special edited by Bongani Madondo. I’ve been meaning to read it for the whole year and stillness would not be found. Finally reading it and I wanna be Brenda Fassie.

How do you decide what to read next?

I read quite spontaneously. Either a book will be recommended by a friend or colleague, or I will be interested in a particular thing and read books around that, or see something on someone’s shelf that catches my eye. Mostly I read on flights, stillness doesn’t often avail itself in Jozi.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

I don’t have a single favourite anything but one that is gentle and memorable is a book called The Meaning of Tingo by Adam Jacquot de Boinod, which I discovered in a book sale pile years ago. The book is a dictionary of words that only exist in certain languages. For example the word “Mukamuka” is defined as Japanese for so angry one could throw up. I liked the idea of feelings that often transcend language but are universal. I certainly have been so angry I could throw up. This actually inspired an exhibition at some point. I have a thing for language and translation and the spaces between.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Tricky. I have many favourites for different days. An artist created one favourite of mine: Kemang Wa Lehulere has a character named The One Tall Enough to See The Morning, who features in his work – he made a drawing of him.

What’s your favourite book about art?

Oddly, I don’t have a favourite book about art. There are many that I find insightful or stimulating like Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Do It: The Compendium which is a collation of several DIY art works collected by Obrist of several years. I liked the approach of multiple versions of the same work / exhibition happening in people’s living rooms, project spaces etc. across the world.

What were your favourite books as a child?

Well we grew up hearing unwritten stories in Sesotho, and some of those like the story about “Tselane – a girl that was fooled by a sweet singing voice – are engrained in my memory. Roald Dahl’s Matilda had me captivated for a long time. Beverly Clearly’s series of books about a girl called Ramona taught me spunk at age 9.

Your favourite magazine?

I used to read Elle in my formative years, traded that for Art South Africa and Frieze when I first landed in the art world, and now I read whatever I come across. Chimurenga is still one of the gems.

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

I bought my niece Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and gave my mom my copy of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as a hospital read.

Which book have you never been able to finish?

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I’ve had it for years, read it, but didn’t really read it and have had to re-read it a few times more.

What book do you turn to for advice?

My uncle Patrick Bereng wrote a book called Haboo. This tells the history of Lesotho’s royal family and its many branches. It is not really advice that I look for, but definitely a go-to-book to remember where I’m from when things get a little abstract.

Do you read mostly paper books? On your iPad? Kindle? All three?

Only paper books. A little old school of me, but weird not to turn a page or find an old receipt/note/flyer used as a book mark from 5 years ago.

Love. Sex. Death.

BY GARETH LANGDON

Art has the unique, seemingly contradictory ability of showing us the truth and transporting us away from reality. Books, especially, can serve as a window into a whole new world – a world as faraway as a different galaxy, or as inaccessible as the mind of another person long dead. In Ramita Navai’s collection of stories, City of Lies, we are given access to a world completely on its own, and one which very few take the time to see.

I call City of Lies a collection of stories, but that is a misnomer. The book traces the lives of several protagonists, each in their own chapter. These are all based on real people who lived, and in some cases died, in Tehran. We meet prostitutes, gangsters, meth addicts, porn stars, opressed women and transexuals. “Lying” begins the book’s Prologue, “is about survival”. The people documented in this book are doing nothing more than trying to survive and this involves a lot of lying – sometimes to themselves, and sometimes to others.

Navai’s background in journalism comes through strongly in her debut book. The stories are told in the detached, matter-of-fact way you may find in a newspaper article. But this doesn’t detract from the power of the stories she is telling. The facts speak for themselves. The fiction in this book serves only to protect the real people behind these stories – little lies to protect the big liars.

The book wrestles with truth throughout. Each narrative pivots around a significant lie, often tied to a deep religious conflict, a political belief or a romantic betrayal. The Tehran presented to us is one of contradictions where the lies serve to protect and maintain the status quo but end up revealing it as a farce. Navai is ruthless in her dissection of the city, searching every nook and cranny for the darkest secrets buried there. As a native Tehrani raised in England, Navai provides a unique perspective on the city and its inhabitants, at once participant and observer. She never holds back in her criticism and remains detached – you may say, journalistic – about her subjects. But the book is not without a hint of sadness. One gets the impression that Navai is not only criticising but also mourning her home. At times she is nostalgic and at others purely pessimistic. The Prologue and Epilogue allow the author’s voice to come through clearly, bookending the otherwise foreign and intimidating Tehrani underworld.

The prose is tight and punchy, but for those unfamiliar with Navai’s work, may come off as brief and harsh. She dispenses with the artful and graceful prose of a novel and lets the facts speak for themselves delivering them to us unobscured. Put simply, she tries to tell us the truth.

City of Lies is an eye-opening read and a challenging journey through the darkest corners of Tehran. It will transport you to another world, but be warned, this world is not a pretty one.

City of Lies is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.