A Writer Learns from Pictures

William Congdon's  Santorini 9.

William Congdon's Santorini 9.

I’m trying to find my way as a writer. There’s a lot of birth and death along the way. I die to inflated self-love and self-hate. I die to the allure of certain words and structures, to the bombastic stylization that seeks to shock and impress rather than ring true. I am born to new confidence and new humility as I read great stories, both finding myself in the writing and seeing how far off the mark I can be. I am born to new patience with details, and the revelations that come with time and distance from stalled projects.

Much of a writer’s growth revolves around the cycle of reading and writing, listening and speaking. It’s like watching many little wisps of fog form from mouths and pages, and straining to see something in them before they dissipate. The more I watch, the more I find patterns and truths in those little wisps, especially when I compare one conversation to another, one writer to another. I’m investigating language. I’m a student of words.

But I’ve also grown from observing other art forms, including visual art. Though I’m not aiming to render a scene in pencil or oil, something’s still at work in my writer’s mind when I see a good picture. Visual artists try to articulate the hidden world of perception. They turn a subjective inner vision into a fixed object, a communicable form. I’m after the same thing when I write, so I watch with great interest when an artist can do this well.

I think of 20th Century Catholic artist William Congdon. I met his work in Burlington Vermont a few years ago. I was probing the art section in one of those pre-Amazon bookstores, shelves stacked with a collection both vast and selective (I love the picture-flings to be had with art books, quick and colorful romances). Amid familiar volumes, Congdon’s The Sabbath of History drew me in, an assortment of images that spanned 5 decades of his work. Severe strokes of gray formed a crucifix on the cover, with a bowed head of sorrowful black hair, an image that promised worthy contents.

When I opened to his landscape paintings, especially those from the 1950s (of Venice, Santorini, Rome, Assissi), I felt an almost unbearable awe. Skeletal white rocks, muddy earth, cities roughly ornamenting the thin rims of the earth: in his work, the plainness of land, sky, sea, and architecture somehow becomes a drama, something weighty and spiritual and human. Thick, broad planes of paint are scraped into specific forms, a roman arch or a tower clock. And his walls of impasto give way to an unsettling impression of depth (I still lurch at the gaping chasm and protruding volcano of Santorini 9).

The fine colors and crude scrapes tremble on the canvas. Congdon’s lens reanimates every inch of visible earth with life, death, and rebirth, what he understood as Christ’s suffering and dying in the fabric of all matter. As Congdon put it, Christ “flows everywhere, and even more in the splinters of the ashes like a bombardment of hate.” Even Congdon’s congested, broken cityscapes, like New York City (Explosion) and Bombay 19, indicate a wholesome composure, one wrought in the dark with the shards and shrapnel of our mean lives.

Like Congdon, I want to see the divine drama where I used to see mere things, pretty things, ugly things. I want to find a spiritual whole in the visible world. And for me, the finding is in the writing of it. Congdon’s blend of crudeness and elegance, life and death, density and depth; these engaging perplexities are welcome guides as I work. I can’t predict how they’ll emerge on the written page which makes me that much more eager to write.

Now that I’m working on writing, I dissect the things I read. Reading isn’t magic in the way it once was, because I’m looking up the sleeves of the writer, trying to find out how it all works. There’s an awe in the discovery of technique, but it’s a functional awe, one that I want to adopt for my own purposes.

But when I look at a painting, the magic is intact, and I can just be bowled over, captivated, mystified. And I can appreciate effects, not techniques. This experience is important, because I hope to attract people to my work, and they won’t find inspiration or connection in technique. They’ll find it in the effect of the writing, the sense that it gives, the world that it evokes.

- Brian James, Highrocker


About: Brian is an English teacher, a songwriter, and a church musician.  He grew up in Salem, lives in Salem, and writes about Salem for Artthrob Magazine. Brian also collaborates with musician Jon Green, writing lyrics and music.  He married his high school sweetheart, Kerrie, and together, they have a son and a daughter.

Check out more of Congdon's collection here