Art: what makes one piece, work… or not?

From my Journal:
My mother warned me. “Never be an artist! It’s all or nothing. Artists are the most selfish people in the world!… but if you are an artist… there’s no help for you.”/

Working on this piece, having painted over my last effort on this same surface, has me thinking about failure. Not in general, but of how these failed efforts are a confirmation that I’m still learning. I had a surface to work with: a painting that hadn’t worked–covered it over with gesso. On the table, there were strips of canvas from paintings I’d trimmed after stretching. I coiled and looped them, stapled them to the board. I drew a figure on the left (it doesn’t show very well in this photo… something to remedy? or not?), then cut out another figure and stapled that over it. I found a rusted wire ladder on the street, and placed that over the figures. Then began painting. Didn’t like what I had—tore some of the canvas loose… and found that I liked the white which that had exposed. Slashed white paint on those exposed areas for greater emphasis, and on some of the canvas strips. I don’t know where this one is going, whether I can finish it and move on, or whether I will cover it in turn with gesso and begin again with something different.

WIP and pics 001

But then..what makes one piece a failure, and other a success? For me… for my own satisfaction? A complicated question. I’ve been drawing several hours a day for the last few weeks. At last—keeping to a satisfying discipline, and seeing improvement. Mostly, anatomical drawings, using drawings from old masters. The outline of the figure here is a child of that work. Almost hidden, covered over by the cut-out canvas. I think I’ve pushed past the need to prove myself… to myself… that I’m good enough to draw the human figure. It had been a lack of confidence in precisely this that had played a large part in derailing my pursuit of art 40 some years ago—something that has continued to puzzle me. What happened to me then—when I see from drawings that I had made, no evidence of lack of ability? A need for training, practice—and a few years of disciplined work, yes—but no lack of native ‘talent.’ Having come to this point, I
wanted to write out my thoughts—sound out for myself, what I’m doing, where I want to go. And maybe, understand better what had set me off on such a long, long detour from the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do, that in that, I might know better what my goals are now.

Goals. Yes–though on the one hand, I hold a deeply set conviction that what I mean by, goals, I will never see but through their unveiling one new work at a time, and yet—by admitting that I do have goals, that with each piece I make, I’m seeking out some future vision; that while it’s still play, it’s play not for the moment alone, but for the moment it makes possible for me in the next work, and the next, and the next.

That takes me back to my opening question. What makes one piece a failure, and another, a success—if not, that it further reveals… brings me closer, to that always invisible goal—or leaves it hidden. There’s what makes the failures so disturbing—makes the whole process both so exhilarating, and scary. A failure can be either—confirmation that one is pushing into new territory, learning, still learning… or it could be the end. That the goal… whatever that will-a-the-wisp that is the only light to follow… has gone out. And there’s nothing left.

It’s really like that. All or nothing. Maybe that—and doubts about my drawing skills—but I knew that for me… maybe not for everyone, but for me—that I knew it would be that way…that this was, would be, for me…  life or death. One of those fanatics people are so afraid of… but I don’t kill people…

I still don’t know what it’s about. What worth any of this has in the world beyond my obsession? I do know… that I’ve bitten the poison.

My mother warned me. “Never be an artist! It’s all or nothing. Artists are the most selfish people in the world!… but if you are an artist… there’s no help for you.”

Drawing the thread, stitching the world together, a line at a time.


Drawing calms me. It’s very physical; I don’t need the muscular strength of throwing pottery on a wheel (something I did full time for almost 10 years)–but requires every bit the control and coordination. There’s always an element of drawing in my painting–even in the most abstract pieces, and when I get away from that, something is lost in the finished work.
Even the trash assemblages are a form of drawing, not with marks on a flat surface–but in three dimensions, creating lines, geometric or chaotic forms, tonal variations.
My need for this–to return to drawing, day after day without breaks, has progressed–gradually at first, when I returned to making art in July of 2012, to the point now that if I go two or three days without drawing my level of physical anxiety increases and my thoughts spiral toward patterns of depression.
At the end of a day of shopping, cooking, preparing a canvas, taking care of this business or that–I may be exhausted, but I have to take the time–even if only a half an hour sketching figures from an anatomy book.
I didn’t realize until recently–how important this was for my emotional and physical health. It’s that integration of interior and exterior perception… stitching together the fabric of reality.
The metaphor calls to mind, my mother, who was deeply skilled at both drawing–and a seamstress/tailor. I stitch together those ancient bonds, as well, memories and the present. As with poetry. Word by word. Line by line.

55 Days of Occupy Philly: Day one OWS to Philly, Oct. 4

This first post covers the 20 days from September 17, 2011, the first day of Occupy Wall
Street, to October 4, when the General Assembly at Arch Street Methodist agreed to begin the Occupation two days later, Thursday, October 6, on Dilworth Plaza, in the shadow of City Hall

I will be posting these for each of the 55 days of Occupy Philly on Dilworth Plaza, from October 6, 2011 to November 30, the night of our eviction.

To view all posts to date, CLICK  55 Days of Occupy Philly.

These are, for the most part, raw transcripts, drawn from more than 70 pages in my journal, supplemented by contemporary articles, and posts that appeared on my blog, Jacob Russell’s Barking Dog. I’ve done some minor editing, formatting, added photos I found on the web, and poems that I wrote during the Occupation. I’ve blanked names at times when I thought they might be hurtful. Actions matter more than personalities.

A journal is a record of immediate impressions. Where my views have changed–and I thought it important, I’ve added afterthoughts [in brackets and italics]. Whether those few weeks be judged as important or insignificant for history, for many of us who took part… in the assemblies, the working groups, the direct actions–they changed our lives, left a mark that we will not soon overcome: reason enough, I thought, to make this record (limited as it is, in point of view or insight, for how little I was able to see and record), available to public view.
August 26, 2015

September 17
… was my youngest son’s 32nd birthday. I was following the progress of my sister’s final illness, waiting for payment for some editing I’d done. Counting the days till my next Social Security Deposit.

It was the first day of the occupation of Zuccotti Park.

I had, on this day, yet to hear anything about it on the news.

September 22.
I had a tooth extracted. Couldn’t afford the prescription for penicillin. Learned about OWS from Twitter.

September 23.

                                  6th Day of OWS

Rain. Drone of the fan in the window. Humid. Dark.
Watched demonstrations/ Wall Street last night—Promising. Unusual degree of creativity—semi-chaos for this stage—sustained this long. I hope they grow. How are they going to deal with the rain?
–Journal. Book 55. Page 6309

9/24/11 All day watching live feed of the Occupy Wall Street demonstration. After a week, still almost no media coverage. Sent links Tweets, posted on my blog. Watched as cops penned several women, then maced them. As many as 100p arrested when they marched to Union Square.
Went to the Chapterhouse reading. Others are not as into this as I am.

But Debrah Morkun is there! & CA Conrad is in NY & has been there.
Here’s a link to an INTERVIEW ON HUFF POST with Debrah and Frank Sherlock. I’m going tomorrow—Chinatown bus. Spend the day. Gather info.

Sunday, September 24, 2011

Driving through the Holland Tunnel on …
     …the way to Occupy Wall Street for every tile worker’s
     hand the trowel he held 32 million tiles in the ceiling
     2.9 million on the walls
     how many laid by one man in an hour
     a day       counting
     them in his sleep beside his wife
     in a walk-up in Bayonne

     14 workers died building that tunnel…
     not one of them
     named Holland

Page 6310

On the New Century bus—2 way ticket in pocket—NYC & back. Dim light—lights not on yet–or AC—very hot—drenched with sweat.
I have poems to hang from trees in Zuccotti Park.

No Revolution without Poetry!
No Poetry without Revolution!

Across the Ben Franklin. Battleship New Jersey looks so small. NJ 38… Discount Mattress—mattresses hanging side by side—like Zoe Strauss photo—cover of City Real and Imagined. See the hi-way corridor of commodified ruins with new eyes. Twenty minutes out & its cooler, but not enough to dry the sweat. See a dime under the seat across the isle—wonder how I can reach it without drawing attention.

EZ Pass

Tag Holders and Cash Only.
Goldenrod by the side of the road. A few trees beginning to turn—telling us the earth is tilting on its axis toward winter. Language of trees. Did those neutrinos really exceed the speed of light?
–Page 6311

General Assembly

Hand signals. Agree.
Point of Process— –block—not approve but not block—
Mic Check!
Quaker style consensus.

A transformative moment for me.

Lucky 13
Loooong conversation with a machinist… not just what I saw—it changed me. Also wore me out.
Monday 7:25 PM
Peggy [my sister] in hospice…
… all day getting info out & together for Occupy Philly.

Just caught Michael Moore on live feed at OWS.
11:42 PM
Working on my account of Sunday at Occupy Wall Street. Have been writing for almost 2 hours—and still have to write about the General Assembly, post to my blog.
–2:23 AM Finished about an hour ago. Then discovered the FB Occupy site—had been posting only public status—on the web page,

Occupy Together – Philadelphia.
Then Deborah Morkun sent an invitation to the Wooden Shoe meeting – to organize a ‘rally.” A rally? Is that all this is about? Very disturbing—and so late, can’t get any clarification.
Relax… deep breath. No “organizers’ are going to usurp this meeting.
My points for consideration posted: 4:27 AM. to bed

Voice text from _________: my sister hanging on—comfortable. I have a feeling this will be the day.

Let the Second American Revolution be my mourning jacket
Page 6313

September 27, 2011
Peggy Johnson Clark
April 8, 1946 – September 27, 2011

Today Cornell West & Amy Goodman at Occupy Wall Street. Beginning to get some attention.

Such contradictory emotions.

Comes in waves. I’ll remember something. Then—not numb. Not an absence of feeling. A quiet. A stillness. As a leaf on a tree, as a rock feeling the wind. Feeling time pass. Nothing is final to the heart—no wonder we invented after-life. This can’t be all there is, we tell ourselves.
Page 6315

So humid—drenched with sweat.. hypoglycemic… stopped at ACME for a banana & an orange. Empty my ACCESS money. $1.65 till Monday.
1:20 AM
Wrestled a couple of poems from notes—rest of day—on Occupy Philly. Tomorrow planning meeting. First scheduled for Wooden Shoe—which holds maybe 50 or 60 people—changed to Arch St. Methodist—almost 300 signed up as Attending on FB, with even more “Maybes.”
Didn’t get that worked out till well past midnight, & without sufficient notice—decision was to meet at Wooden Shoe, then walk to Broad Street—even better—especially if we can get posters or flyers at Wooden Shoe.

Go to Wooden Shoe—arrive by 5:30. Pick up posters if available—go to Arch St. Methodist—don’t wait for group walk to start. Take subway, South to City Hall.

FBook’s hall-of-mirrors causing all kinds of confusion.
So…it’s 2:30 PM. Leave here at 4:50. Have 2 hours 20 minutes.
–Read—eat—try to stay off FB.
1:48 AM
Have to print out report from my blog. Almost 400 showed up. We’re underway! Outreach/Planning/Administration (?)
My hours playing info editor/interceptor were useful.

Cops followed whole way from Wooden Shoe to North Broad. Cops IN the church lobby. No doubt in audience. 400 in the church?

… to bed

Report from last night’s meeting at Arch Street Methodist Church:
The first Philly meeting turned into an ad hoc General Assembly with all the tension and underlying threat of disruptive chaos one might expect from a gathering of some 400 people, no time get to know one another, no time to build trust and a sense of a common purpose—even if that purpose might be yet to be discovered.

Began with a sobering report from the legal team—they have our backs (everyone in this movement should be damn grateful and happy they do–they have a superb record of support for free speech in a town that often doesn’t hold much stock in the 1st Amendment… how many years did Lynn Abraham press her heavy hand over the courts here?)– but we’ll be the ones risking bloodied heads and jail time while we wait for them to perform their legal magic to get us out of the slammer.

It was kind of all downhill from there—depending on which way you take that—the laws of gravity on our side (easy going… ), or a non-stop slide to the pit of no return. I don’t say that out of discouragement—democracy is damn hard work, and not a form of labor most of us have any experience with. The real thing is more than pulling a level in a voting booth, or doing circle jerks in legislative chambers to produce endless iterations of the same old same old. Everyone in that room had at least begun to catch on to that—how the crumbs of reform tossed by Good Cop Democrats do nothing but appease discontent so the Bad Cop Republicans can keep steal most of us blind, and throwing as many of rest of us as they can in prison for laws they pass cause, like prohibition, they know damn well we’ll break them. Shit, when you got nowhere else to go with your life and ten minutes watching the corporate news is like a siren call to end it all & be done with it—a toke on a weed seems like a fucking Plan!

But knowing how to shape an egalitarian society, even in microcosm—the real deal I mean—it’s not gonna be easy going—not coming from where we do in the Land of the Wage Slave Sound Bite and the Savior who never quite turns out to be what we thought he was on the campaign trail. Cause an egalitarian society—arriving at consensus where everyone has a voice, where no one gets left behind or shoved outside the circles of power so the simple majority can get on with the business of trampling the rights of the minority, and the even smaller minority can steal us blind and… but we been through that one. You know the dope.

There are powerful residual habits we’re going to have to unlearn, and it’s going to feel like pulling teeth—in the old days I mean—before Novocain—when they did it with pliers and a shot of white lightning. We’re going to have to trust one another, trust that we can do this, that together we have the genus, the creative power that surpasses even the brightest individual—cause no individual can know what it is we want as a people, can know how it is we want to live together—since living together is our only fucking choice. And since it is, we better do it with love. And respect. And cooperation. And all those virtues the power hungry (or is it power-starved?) wage slaves and servants of those who think they own us and the earth and everything in on and under it—all those virtues they like to make fun of, like they’re signs of weakness.

Friday Up at 8:00. How deeply have I gotten myself into this? What’s going to happen to my quiet life?
Need to take pains to read & keep up with poetry.

Comcast down (?) Bad time to lose connections.

3 days till Soc. Sec. Gave coins to a homeless man. down to one dollar in pocket.
Internet ok when first turned on computer. Does seem to be Comcast.

I plan to spend a couple hours in the morning reading. Instead I fuss with the modem, take laptop to B2 Cafe—can’t find a network there–& screen near impossible to see outside. Come home. Definitely seems to be Comcast. It’s the “cable activity light” that’s consistently off.
12:22 PM
Took a nap. Tried again—got a signal for about a second—something’s changed… but doesn’t last. Couple moving in upstairs.

Woke from my nap—drowsy & walked to bank but didn’t shake it.
Listen to hourly news. NPR & head for the library with my laptop.
8:28 PM A day lost. Have to take the modem to a Comcast center.

1351 Columbus. 8:30. Saturday?

To bed at 9:30. Awake at Midnight. Read. A poem of sorts. 2:02. back to

9:36 – Off to 1351 Columbus – hope I come back with a new modem.
Street work on Morris. 29 bus rerouted. Sign says, catch it on Broad. Veggie vender here hasn’t seen one for an hour. Been here a half-hour. Still no sign of it. Persist.. Persist.

2nd & Tasker. Modem (new) in the bag.

One. Thing. After. Another!

1:33 Outreach meeting at 3:00.

Draught Horse Restaurant.

My Soc Sec deposit made!

Long meeting—outreach. Need to work on this.
NY – cops trapped 300 on Brooklyn Bridge.

… here at L. 13 texted Gil. He had to work so not in NY today.
Phillies up 9-3 in the 8th. Halliday’s not given up a hit since the 3rd inning home run that put them up 3-0. Retried the last 20 batters.

Lucky 13
Shouldn’t have come back, but found my lost shoulder bat—use it to carry my lap top.

This was a crazy day. Half of it getting the modem & router working—the Outreach meeting. Catching up on Occupation news. Email.

Damask press wants to publish a 5 poem sampler of Chronic Chronos Kairos–& a broadside.

700 arrested/ entrapment—Brooklyn Bridge. I suppose this is going to mean another arrest [for me] in the not too distant future.
10:18 Was up at 6:00. have to meet at Love Park for a Canvas Training session. (I’ll be one of the trainers). Time enough for a nap.
10:20 Most of these past couple of years—alone in my room, poetry readings, writing—growing into a new sense of myself. Woke up after I got home from New York—lost. Briefly. What have I done? What have I committed myself to? Still off-center at the first meeting Thursday. Today… went to Love Park. “Training” for canvassers, I was the alternative—the un-rapster. Let Steve do his spiel… I mean. Waited. While he talked. Said my piece (brief) & came home. Not for me—the street canvasser shit we were doing for Obama. Had forgotten to take my asthma meds—Advair—or BP pills. An excuse that was no excuse. But all that aside… felt a deep opening, a settling in. A letting go. This is what I’m going to do. This is for real.

Hand signals. Point of Process/block/approve/No, but no block/ Get on with it/
Wrote my piece on the Thursday meeting—gonzo polemic. Gonna do more of this. I was tired when I started—drowsy, I mean. But it took off. Took over. Gonna be the gonzo philosopher of this movement. Yeah, right….
Jacob Russel Poetry

Monday Planning: Robin’s
12 here so far. Good. Not too many… 10 more… and more… 50 or 60. A long meeting—second half we began to find the flow. We decided on an agenda, preliminary procedure—and that we would select a site & time for occupation. Tomorrow.
Gene—Points to me and says that I should facilitate. We’d picked facilitators. I declined. He had something other in mind—someone to “take charge” –to lead the way. I don’t know what made him think I might be one do this. I didn’t ask. But I took his concern about the undisciplined procedure to the point—people interjection—raising hands but not waiting to be recognized—as though I might do something. He had in mind that I speak up—take charge. I choose to lead by example—even if invisible. And to surround myself with a field of calm… was that what made a difference? I don’t know. But the second half was much more orderly—and at times almost as though my example—the concentrated calm—as though it
had an effect. I would hold my hand out, palms down, and the people would stop for the moment—stop talking out of turn.
After the meeting he took me by the lapel, asked if I drank—offered me a drink. I didn’t refuse. Led me to the Westbury.
Got to Broad at 5:00 met with group—facilitating welcome & agenda. Worked with them till 6:20. Took 20 minutes for everyone to get into the church & get seated—1000 people! And we worked through the agenda like we were born to do this—adjourned ½ hour early—all by consensus.


We fucking did it!


A thousand people!
1000 people came to the general assemble at Arch Street Methodist Church. Filled to standing room. The long difficult meeting night before—with only 60 in attendance… how could this work?

It worked.

Went through a potentially divisive agenda and made decision after decision—by consensus, chose City Hall for occupation, Thursday October 6 (today)… ONE day for all the logistics involved. Broke into Working Groups (committees) outside after. Meeting was over half hour early… ended by singing Solidarity Forever.

Turning point, when deadlocked between Love Park, Rittenhouse Square and City Hall, asked for a break—everyone turn to your neighbor and talk about this for ten minutes, give voice to what you think—and they gave voice, oh they gave voice, a sound like a great rush of wind, like a waterfall, the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard, strangers deciding together, searching for that wisdom that is greater than any one of us. It was beautiful, beautiful…

People gathering at 4 points to walk to City Hall. We have Dilworth Plaza north to south.
Nibbles from the Powers, making nice, making use… this will be the beginning of a more difficult challenge, more trying than pepper gas or jail cells. Philly not New York. “I’m the 99% too” Mayor Nutter is reported to have said…fucking bullshit

Thursday October 4, 2011, Arch Street Methodist Church
A brief hesitation…
     a single breath before
     a thousand voices
     & yaw
     the tents across the plaza
     sprawl imagination
     more than  human hand can hold

Orphans in the Storm


Journal, February 17, 2015
I should go retire soon. Up early tomorrow, figure drawing at Fleisher’s. One of those days when I don’t want to let go. That feeling that I haven’t done enough. That the day isn’t finished–but I’ve run out of time and too tired to do anything more. Read till I get sleepy? The best I can manage.
I got in drawing time. I finished a painting. Finished readiing a book Went shopping. Posted on my blog… why does it feel like, not enough? Not enough. Not enough. Never enough?
It comes back to me… a young child, wanting to go on playing even when I was falling asleep on my feet. Only now I’m not particularly sleepy–but I think it comes from the same place. Playing… but what is the power of that play?
It’s been a long time since I’ve taken as much pleasure in a book as I did with Josipovici’s Hotel Andromeda. I feel such a kinship with Joseph Cornell–though I share little of his traumatic alienation. It’s the way Josipovici, through Helena, speaks of how he made his boxes—it touches me so.
Makes me think again, another dimension of what it means to be ‘recognized.’ One makes art out of oneself—to please oneself—and no one else. There’s no other way to do it, not and stay honest. But there’s an emptiness at the end that’s inescapable. What one makes as an artist–once completed, as much as that ever happens, no longer belongs to you. An artist is a person is compelled–obsessed would not be too strong a work–with creating orphans.
There was that, too, in Josipovici’s novel, wasn’t there? How did he get so many layers, so right? The orphans in Chechnya, who Helena’s sister was committed to caring for–an impossible task. Survivors of such trauma–they were feral, wild things. Untamable and violent. Who would ever want them? Accept them for what they are. So like the work of the artist, Joseph Cornell, she reflected. So like us all.
Found things. Take them up, put them together, because no one else will. And then—let them go. To be lost again. But bearing your imprint… indecipherable code inscribed.
Who will ever know how to read it?

Waking Dreams: Life of the Imagination

Journal. Book 65, p. 8894-96

“…dream with the dreamer, but never forget that the dreamer will wake up in a world devoid of dreams.” Helena’s meditation on Cornell’s fascination with Houdini. Hotel Andromeda, 113

That is how it is. Every morning. Enfolded in dreams in slee, resisting waking until forced by my body’s needs. I stand in the shower still half dreaming. Almost hallucination. Things—what they are, and what they are in dreams. The unwelcome, forced, hurried interlude of  dressing, washing dishes, breakfast. This sets the rhythm for the day.

Going to a demonstration, attending a street medic meeting—this too, another kind of dream-time, & when it’s not, when I sense it won’t & cannot be that, I balk, I stay home. It’s a terrible thing to be awake in this world…nothing but awake, no dream to sustain you.

The waking dream, the sleeper’s dream, are compliments. For me. They are.

Both: activism and art, are my ways of dreaming the world, another world, something more than what the terrible IS of the world. For one, a way of dreaming with the world, for the other, bringing my dream to the world. Either without the other… a descent into madness.

Tricksters of the Real

from December, 2009/ Journal/ Barking Dog

I search for poets and artists who are the ultimate subversives. Not prophets and seers, not hermetic guides blessing humanity with visionary truth, certainly not enterainment or comfort for the powerful–but tricksters of the real,

Marxists …
of Night at the Opera, destroyers of painted sets ripping away the masks of power, tearing down the curtains of the Corpratocracy–all that makes it possible to believe in the American Hologram–the artifice of the military/industrial/prison complex. By using the stuff of our collective illusions as raw material for… play,

for delight,
for life

I think again of the painters of the cave walls… how there must have already been present some experience of alienation—of dissonance between the encounters of the hunt, and what that meant to them for their survival—imaginatively, intellectually (yes, intellectually!) — some terrific gap those images were fashioned to reconcile, to bridge. Not so unlike us, for Isn’t part of the message of those images… the wonderfully rendered figures of bison, elk, bears and … in contrast, the questionable status of those human stick figures who so uncomfortably inhabit the same space, as though belonging to a different reality.

The one we are still waiting to create.

For Those of us Who Keep Journals

 Bridge over Outlet Bass Lake
photo by Will Hardin. Bass Lake Outlet
Journal entry
Vol. 44:
After 5576 pages (since 1987… earlier volumes destroyed), nothing could be clearer. My journals don’t aspires to “literature.” To be sure, there are moments–caught up in passing enthusiasms–whole volumes when plain insanity wears the mask of “art” –but day after day, page after page, what I’ve compiled is nothing more (or less) than a verbal equivalent of the middlebrow albums of the snapshots my family used to keep.

Moving pictures.

Like the reels and reels of 16 mm family movies–long since lost. Moments, images, brief visual narratives I hope to return to–and save from the ever changing sequences of organic memory. Something external, I tell myself. Like a photograph. Like those lost silent movies. No less subjectively framed, so no closer to “truth”, but at least–external. Free of alteration.

Vane hope. Every reader, and every reading… rewrites what is read. But at least, I tell myself, the words remain. There. In their original sequential order.

So many pages, so many words–an embarrassment of false memory, a presence that begins to weigh on my life (is that why I’ve burned ten-year segments–twice?… since my earliest entries… 50 years ago?)

Memory serves us to our advantage–only to the degree that we retain the power to transform it.
Anything less, is …?

If this is so for us as individuals… how much more is humanity burdened by the false memory of history?

If it’s our lot–condemned to misremembering, erasing the violence we have done, to ourselves, to our fellow creatures on this earth, let us begin to remember forward, to creatively body forth from imagination, a world where there will be no need to forget the horrors we seem unable to face in our past.