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Peeks and Piques! The Sketch Book

By Raymond J. Steiner
ART TIMES Spring 2013

ALTHOUGH THEY ARE displayed now and then —usually tucked inside a vitrine that features memorabilia — at a retrospective of some noted artist, the humble "sketch book" is more often than not overlooked, neglected, passed over as insignificant in an artist's life and work. True, they are usually dog-eared, travel-worn, and pocket-sized, but, at least for me, sketch books rank very high as offering some of the most revealing insights I can ever get while I sit in some artist's studio trying to garner enough material for a Profile— and besides, I learn so much about art! Of course I "take in" the artist's studio surroundings (which tell me a lot) and listen to their words (which tell me a lot less), but when I get the chance to take a peek into a sketch book or two — well it's something like looking into a diary. So private are many artists' sketch books, that they often hesitate — even refuse — to allow me a perusal. Some keep them out of sight, hidden in drawers, far away from my 'prying' — "close to the chest" like some poker player hiding his pair of aces — and thus I am often deprived of those insights that 'flesh out' my finished Profile (not to mention not being able to "flesh out" my knowledge and understanding of art). By now, most artists are familiar with my work and know that I am not 'in the business' of publishing "tell-alls" that can mean-spiritedly embarrass people and titillate others. Most now know that I am indeed probing — but only to uncover the source(s) of their creative spirit/output (as I note above, many artists — rightly so —are unable or unwilling to translate their work into words). I say "rightly so" since (I've found) the glibber they are, the less are they genuine artists. And, I say "genuine" because there are a great many talented (and untalented)  craftspeople that know how to "sell" their work and few "real" artists who are aware that "art" (images) and "language" (words) are two    different means of communication. Paul Cadmus, for instance, a most articulate individual on many topics never strayed into discussion of his art — except to point out a drawing he had done as a child while saying, "My de Kooning period". Anyway…early on in my interviews (I've been doing them for over 30 years) it was not always easy for me to get an artist to hand over their "diaries." Two that stand out in my mind are Robert Angeloch and Françoise Gilot — first, because they were so reluctant (at first) and, second, because (after they gave in) their sketch books were so enlightening, giving obvious clues to their finished work. Gilot's was particularly interesting in that her tiny books were not only full of drawings, but also poems, and comments in what little margins were available; Angeloch's less 'chatty', but full of annotations as to color and what the finished product might or ought to look like 'compositionally' (not sure that's a word) thus, often side-by-side sketches of the same scene. Another that stands out in my memory was the sketch book / journal of Elizabeth Mowry (PSA) — not for her reluctance to share it (she readily showed it to me) but for its sheer beauty. At the time (1986), I urged her to publish it but do not know if she ever did (it contained notes and drawings of the plants, flowers, and shrubbery around her property made during the time her husband was house-bound and she could not leave him alone ). Nowadays, instead of refusals, I often get a "Why?" or "What for?" before sketch books are slipped out of drawers or nearby cabinets and handed over. And when they are…

Read more from Steiner at: rjsteiner.wordpress.com

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