photo: Judy Ferrara
Photo Credit: Tracy Raphaelson




Ferbruary 2006

"Publishing a volume of verse [or exhibiting your artwork] is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo."


Don Marquis from Donald Murray's "Quotes From Poets" Handout


"What's It For? - A Look at the Difficulties Inherent in a Creative Life"

Dear Reader,

I don't know of one artist or writer who hasn't at some point questioned her or his purpose in making art. We fill notebooks, store computer files, arrange manuscripts, and/or fill studios, cellars and garages with artwork, meet with gallery representatives and hope for a positive outcome.

It seems reasonable, then, that the question popping into my mind especially in moments of transition after having finished a poem or a painting is, "What's it for?". I greet its presence as I would a friend who drops by uninvited. Even though I'm glad to see this person, I wish that I were more prepared. Having gone through the hard work, elation, frustration and sense of closure in putting a piece to rest, I'd like to experience some satisfaction before moving on. Then the "What's it for?" bell rings and, like a boxer, I have to defend what I do in the studio and at the computer. When artist and teacher Hans Hofmann said, "You must struggle," he wasn't kidding.

While I was brainstorming ideas for this journal, it occurred to me that it could turn into a laundry list of complaints. Here I am, living a VERY privileged life because I practice my art and writing full time. What is there to complain about? Nothing, actually, but Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not a life worth living…" My aim is to write about some difficulties I experience on a regular basis, and to offer some strategies used to help overcome them.

"What's It For?" - This question needs a little more room because it is one of the BIG questions in the search for the meaning of life. One Satisfactory Answer cannot and should not put my mind at ease. I need to welcome the self-doubt and expect the discomfort, but I don't suffer in silence. Journal writing is a strategy that keeps alive a dialogue with my creative self. I reread my entries periodically to see what was so important six months ago (Judy's Journal, October 2004). A second strategy is to talk with trusted friends and colleagues. I find that I am not alone in questioning my decision to take on this life. I cannot let it paralyze me.

Productivity - My problem is numbers: when I returned to painting after several decades, I felt I had to catch up on years lost. I completed at least one piece every week. It was what I needed to do at the time. Last year, I completed two paintings a month and wrote ten new poems. What does my reduced output mean? I take time to see trends in my work. I am changing and making progress, both visually and verbally. Sometimes, events take me away from the studio and computer, and my productivity slows. This might always haunt me, but I tend to consider other things now, such as the quality of the work and the relationships between poems or paintings. I don't want to end up like Jay DeFeo, who "spent more than a decade painting, repainting and revising the same enormous abstraction, on the same canvas, till it weighed almost a ton" (from The Accidental Masterpiece).

Rejection, Acceptance and Silence - The first two can tie knots in my creative life (Judy's Journal, March and April 2005). I could untie them by not putting my work "out there" (Judy's Journal, July 2005). However, I want people to look at my work and feel something. That's one of the reasons I make poetry and art. There are times when I do meet people, such as an exhibition reception, a poetry reading, or in my home. The lack of reaction is the most difficult thing for me to understand. Is it that people literally do not know what to say? Two questions could start a conversation: "What I notice about this is…" and/or "What inspired you to write (or paint) this…?"

Recently, the man who was putting on our new roof came into the house and saw the artwork. He asked which paintings were mine, and when I pointed out a large abstract dominated by shades of alizeron crimson, he went up to it and said, "Hey, I like this. It reminds me of water. I can't tell you why, but I see water." He took a risk and said something about the work! I felt elated for quite a while because he was curious and broke the silence with his comment. Times like these are rare, however, so I bring my paintings to critiques at the art museum, and I belong to a monthly poetry group where we give each other response in order to allay the problem of silence. Several years ago, I wrote a poem about Vincent van Gogh, which was based on an interview with artist and model, Suzanne Valadon (Van Gogh: A Retrospective, Susan A. Stein, ed., Beaux Arts Editions). An earlier version appeared in Gestures of Trees (Mellen Poetry Press, 2000):

In Paris, Two Stories about Vincent van Gogh

In 1928, Suzanne Valadon told this story:
I remember Van Gogh
Coming to our weekly gatherings at Lautrec's.
He arrived carrying a heavy canvas
Under his arm, put it down in a corner
But well in the light

But well in the light
And waited for us to pay some attention to it.
No one took notice.

No one took notice.
He sat across from it,
Surveying the glances,

Seldom joining in the conversation.
Then, tired, he would leave,

Then, tired, he would leave,
Carrying back his latest work.

But the next week he would come back,
Commencing and recommencing
With the same stratagem.

Paris, December 1998
Hear this, Vincent.
From across the gallery
A mother urged her son, about five years old,
To see "L'Eglise d'Auvers-sur-Oise."
He stood next to me,
Threw back his head
To take it in,
Shifted his feet and sighed.
One word
Kissed the air:

So, what problems do you face in your creative life? What strategies help you to break free and fly? Write to me at! Next month's blog will be about some of my favorite poets and what drew me to their work.